The chief executive of the SQA has said she “regrets” how young people were left feeling over their downgraded exam results, but insisted the controversial moderation system used was “fair”.
Fiona Robertson appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee on Wednesday following the government’s U-turn that will see all downgraded results withdrawn and replaced by teachers’ estimates.
Ms Robertson said everyone at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was “keenly aware of the concerns from young people” expressed over the past week.
In her opening remarks to the committee, she said: “On the basis of the commission that we received from the Scottish Government, there was a clear and unequivocal case for some moderation.”
The appeals process would have dealt with any “anomalies” in the moderated results, she said, while the SQA’s equalities impact assessments showed the results were “fair”.
Last Tuesday, around 138,000 school pupils received the results of their National, Higher and Advanced Higher courses after an exam-free year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although pass rates were up, the moderation system saw 26.2% of grades changed.
The SQA downgraded 124,564 results – 93.1% of all the moderated grades – based on criteria including schools’ historic performances.
Pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland had their grades reduced by 15.2% compared with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.
In response, opposition politicians branded the moderation process a “train wreck” as well as “disturbing and grossly unequal”.
Pupils held a protest at Glasgow’s George Square, whilst Scottish Labour tabled a motion of no confidence in education secretary John Swinney – which is set to be debated on Thursday.
Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesperson, said to Ms Robertson: “I listened with intent to your opening statement but there’s one word I didn’t hear, and that’s the word ‘sorry’”.
Ms Robertson responded: “It was difficult to see the reaction to last week’s results.
“But we were asked to fulfil a role and part of that role was to maintain standards across Scotland.
“I fully appreciate that, as I highlighted in my opening statement, young people felt that their achievements had been taken outwith their control.
“I absolutely get that and of course I regret how young people have felt about this process.”
Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer asked if one of the SQA’s statisticians had resigned as the moderating system was being developed and if this was because they had concerns about the system.
She confirmed one person had resigned, but said: “I’m not privy to the full details of that particular individual.
“It probably wouldn’t be fair for me to go into that in fairness to them.”
Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray asked if the SQA signed off on a moderation system “in the sure and certain knowledge that pupils in those schools with a poorer past performance would be more heavily impacted”.
Ms Robertson said the moderation process was based on data but “the extraordinary circumstances of the year meant that we were awarding on a basis that I think we would all agree were not ideal because of the cancellation of exams”.
The SNP’s Alex Neil raised what he called the “human cost” of the system, saying he had heard from the family of a young woman who had been left “distraught” by a downgraded result and refused to eat or leave her room for three days.
Referring to previous committee meetings which raised concerns about the methodology, he said: “The SQA absolutely refused to listen to the committee’s point about the need to consult on the methodology before it was approved.
“I think everybody and their granny knew that if you used the record of local schools you’d end up with the situation we ended up with – where the moderation process led to two and a half times the downgrades in the poorest areas than happened in the more affluent areas.”
Ms Robertson said: “Where there are lessons to be learned we will learn them.”