Swinney to set out next steps after ‘exam results train wreck’

The education secretary said he as 'heard the anger of students' over the SQA's controversial moderation process.

Swinney to set out next steps after ‘exam results train wreck’ Getty Images
Exam results: Deputy first minister John Swinney said he will reveal the Scottish Government's 'next steps' on Tuesday.

Education secretary John Swinney said he has “heard the anger of students” and will set out a series of steps to address concerns raised over the exam results fiasco.

On 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 produced by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and approved by the Scottish Government 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.

The figures showed that the Higher pass rate for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds was reduced by 15.2 percentage points, compared to only 6.9 percentage points for the wealthiest pupils.

In response, opposition politicians branded the moderation process a “train wreck” as well as “disturbing and grossly unequal”.

Swinney initially said without the moderation, the pass rates compared to 2019 would have been “an annual change never been seen in Scottish exam results”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also defended the system, saying it was “credible”.

She stated had the moderation process not been in place, she would have been announcing that 85% of young people in the most deprived areas had passed Highers this year compared to around 65% last year.

Instead, around 70% of young people from the most deprived areas passed their Highers.

Both Sturgeon and Swinney stressed the appeals process would allow eligible pupils to challenge their results if they were downgraded from teachers’ estimates.

However in response, hundreds of pupils took to Glasgow’s George Square on Friday to protest the methodology – which was only revealed on results day.

Scottish Labour also said it was going to table a motion of no confidence in Swinney following a suggestion that non-priority pupils could have to wait until May 31, 2021 to find out the result of any appeals.

The SQA has said that date is not correct, but are yet to state when pupils should hear the outcome of challenges.

On Sunday, the deputy first minister said he had engaged in detailed discussions and will set out on Tuesday how the Scottish Government intends to “give certainty to our young people”.

In a statement, Swinney said: “I have heard the anger of students who feel their hard work has been taken away from them and I am determined to address it.

“These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right first time.  

“Every student deserves a grade that reflects the work they have done, and that is what I want to achieve.

“I have been engaged in detailed discussions over the way forward and I know that we need to act and act quickly to give certainty to our young people.

“I will set out on Tuesday how we intend to achieve that.”

Following the statement, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, Iain Gray, said: “It’s taken John Swinney five days to even admit this fiasco is his responsibility. 

“The threat of a no confidence motion has seen him finally accept the fact that he got this badly wrong. 

“This is no way to run an education system. Young people will have been left twisting in the wind for a week by the time he explains what action will be taken. He needs to go.”

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said he welcomed the “admission that the Scottish Government got this badly wrong”.

He added: “The widescale downgrading of working class young people was unacceptable and entirely avoidable, as the Scottish Greens warned over four months. 

“The fairest, simplest solution is to trust the professional judgement of teachers, as the SQA and government initially claimed they would before they adopted this awful postcode lottery system.”