Last week hundreds of thousands of young people in Scotland were let down by the politicians elected to manage our education system and an unelected quango with an inherent anti-working-class bias.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is not an accountable or representative body but wields massive authority within Scotland’s education system. Their application of an algorithm to downgrade the teacher recommended awards of 124,000 senior pupils in Scotland is a scandal and must be urgently addressed and fixed. Resignations and/or sackings are appropriate.
Last Tuesday senior students from across Scotland’s 357 High Schools waited anxiously to receive grades for the National and Higher courses they studied in their 4th, 5th, and 6th years at school. These awards and grades are critical in securing limited places in universities and colleges to study further and secure qualifications essential to future professional careers in teaching, medicine, law and a multitude of engineering, science and building trades. For the first time since WWII no exams were able to be held due to the coronavirus lockdown. It was a truly unprecedented situation and the Scottish Government promised to devise a robust and credible alternative form of assessment which would ensure the ‘covid19 generation’ were not failed.
The Scottish Education Minister and teaching unions, mainly the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), agreed to develop a system of recommended gradings which would rely heavily on teacher assessments of school term class work, homework and preliminary exam results achieved earlier in the school year before the March lockdown. Teachers are professionals and it was absolutely right to rely on their judgements to inform the grades awarded to the pupils they teach day in and day out.
Continual Assessment Better Than One-Off Exams – Trust Teachers
In many ways I believe such a form of assessment is actually fairer and more robust than stressful examinations held on one day. Some rise to the occasion when faced with an exam paper in strict time limits. Others panic and can underperform due to increased anxiety. Term long continual assessment is more useful and valuable in my opinion.
Teachers were given guidelines and worked damned hard to deliver informed assessments of each pupil which should have resulted in an appropriate grade. However, the SQA preferred statistical analysis to teacher’s judgements and applied complicated algorithms which sought to adjust the awarding of grades according to past school performances. Inevitably this formula would be more favourable to the high performing schools from the better off areas in Scotland and less favourable to schools in poorer areas. That is an inherent anti-working-class bias which reflects the aloof and conceited nature of the SQA.
Disgracefully 124,000 recommended awards based on teacher’s professional judgements were downgraded by the SQA, almost 25% of the total number of awards, and the downgrades were applied much more against pupils from schools in poorer areas than pupils from wealthier areas.
The SQA had downgraded awards recommended by teachers for pupils from the poorest 20% of areas by more than 15 points, while recommendations for the best-off pupils were downgraded by just under less than 7 points. This was effectively a form of postcode discrimination. The generalised past results from schools in Scotland’s most deprived communities were markedly downgraded despite the individual professional assessments of dedicated teachers. What a shoddy and unfair farce.
Many Grades Downgraded from A to C – Teacher Assessments Need Upheld
The outrage was tangible last week across Scotland and teachers and school students alike expressed astonished disgust at the SQA interference. Some disappointed school students took the initiative to organise spontaneous demonstrations of opposition to the process on Friday. Several broken-hearted senior pupils told of their dreams of medical and law careers being dashed because grades awarded to them were not high enough to secure places on university courses despite teacher’s more favourable assessments.
Thousands of recommended A pass awards were reduced to C pass awards. This was a spectacular cock-up yet for several days both the First Minister and Education Minister defended the process and the awards. They were wrong to do so and lost support and respect from across the political spectrum.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has at least now acknowledged her government’s mistake and apologised to the thousands of young people she and her government let down:
“Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that. We will be taking steps to ensure that every young person gets a grade that recognises the work they have done. Our concern – which was to make sure that the grades young people got were as valid as those they would have got in any other year – perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil.
“That has meant that too many have lost out on grades that they think they should have had and also that that has happened as a result of not of anything they’ve done but because of a statistical model or an algorithm, and in addition that burden has not fallen equally across our society.”
“Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that”.
First Minister Apology Welcome – Now Fix the Problem Urgently
That is a considered apology that was accompanied by a commitment to ‘fix the problem’ and it will win back some support and respect but damage has been inflicted on the already battered reputation of her Education Minister John Swinney who had to drop a proposed Education Bill in 2018 for lack of support, a planned curriculum review last year and his half-cocked plan for part-time education this week instead of the full time return now planned. His resignation or sacking is not a priority as an urgent review and reversal of the SQA downgrades is the most pressing requirement. However, Mr Swinney’s less than convincing performance in office must be addressed. His instinct was to defend the aloof SQA amid this downgrading fiasco not the judgement of Scotland’s teachers and the interests of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds. For that lack of judgement alone he should resign or be sacked.
The First Minister says her government will ‘fix’ the problem and put things right:
“There are of course deeper questions that we will need to resolve for the longer term about the impact of exams on the attainment gap and on the difference between exams and teacher judgement but the most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year”.
This ‘challenge’ is urgent and must result in the reinstatement of the teacher recommended awards. Scottish Government has now climbed down and agreed to revert back to teacher grade recommendations.
The Education Minister should not, however, remain in post.
Mr Swinney erred badly here, and his mistake has cost much anguish and distress for thousands of young people who deserved better. The teacher recommended grades must be recognised automatically not subject to any appeal process and that recognition of teacher recommended grades must be implemented before the end of August.
The competence of John Swinney is now in question and he should consider his position. This is not an argument about independence or British unionism this is an argument about right and wrong, about trusting teachers more than computer generated algorithms. The Education Minister should go and the SQA should be overhauled and transformed into an accountable and representative education body.
Young people are the lifeblood of any society. They should be supported, nurtured, and treasured as they carry the hopes and aspirations of those of us who believe in a better future and world.