Carole Ford: SQA results debacle

The SQA handling of this year’s examination results bears all the hallmarks of yet another Scottish Executive educational shambles. We already have the constantly falling standards and the seesaw from blended learning to fulltime education in the space of 24 hours; providing fair and credible exam results for Scotland’s school pupils might have seemed like a priority. Instead, pupils have been awarded a set of results which is both individually unfair and collectively biased towards middle class schools. An impressive own goal by the SQA and John Swinney.

The SQA has failed miserably on several fronts. Once the decision was taken to abandon this year’s exams and rely only on teacher estimates, the SQA should have developed fair and inclusive moderation processes working in tandem with the teaching profession.

Instead, they chose to mimic the approach of their political masters and draw up their plans in secret. Not only did they lose out on the practical experience and knowhow of teachers, and on the existing data held in schools, they failed to disclose the moderation processes once they had developed them. Teachers were providing estimates blind.

Teaching staff therefore lacked confidence in the system. It is hardly surprising that where relevant, teachers have given pupils the benefit of any doubt. They had no idea how the SQA might moderate them. The net result was, as anyone would have expected, that the estimates showed a marked improvement on previous results.

And now the defective moderation processes kicked in. The SQA relied on the collective previous results of each school to regrade individual pupil results, mostly to downgrade or, on a few occasions, upgrade. In essence, each individual pupil has been judged according to the collective performance of former pupils, many to their serious disadvantage. Since the previous performance of pupils attending less advantaged schools is significantly lower, the much discussed attainment gap, such pupils have had their estimates downgraded to a much greater extent. For example, at Higher level the estimated grades in more affluent schools were downgraded, on average, by 6.9%. In the schools with the highest levels of deprivation, the downgrading averaged 15.2%. This is a shocking statistic.

It is easy to criticise and there have been voices suggesting that the SQA was in a no win situation. Not so. If the SQA had been transparent with teachers, they would have had confidence in the system and felt much less pressure to err on the side of optimism. The SQA chose to obfuscate the issue, clearly demonstrating a lack of trust in the teaching profession.

Had the SQA stuck to the principle of treating pupils as individuals rather than as an amorphous block, the results would have been fairer and they could have avoided the iniquitous situation of discriminating against Scotland’s most vulnerable pupils. So much for social inclusion.

For Higher and Advanced Higher pupils the SQA already holds results from previous years. They could have provided the schools with the expected grade based on previous performance. Schools who considered that individual pupils would perform at a different level could have provided their evidence to show this. If they had no such evidence then there would be no justification for claiming improvement.

For National 5 pupils, again the SQA should have provided the collective results they would have expected on the basis of previous years. Schools who had identified individual pupils, classes or year groups who were performing at a different level than the SQA expectation could have provided their evidence for that. Schools hold cognitive test data, test and examination results, homework and ink exercise marks, all of which can be compared historically.

The SQA had months with nothing else to do but make sure that results were as fair as possible. Dashing pupils’ hopes, often unfairly, is bad enough. Penalising pupils from disadvantaged areas is nothing short of shameful. John Swinney has completely failed to hold the SQA to account; to ensure that their systems were fair and inclusive. If his intention had been to upset pupils, teachers and parents, he couldn’t have done a better job.

By Carole Ford, SIU Board Member and former head teacher.