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11 August 2020

Will Scotland’s exams U-turn force Boris Johnson’s government to follow?

The Conservative administration has vowed not to abandon results moderation – but it may end up having to. 

By Stephen Bush

The Scottish government has U-turned on exam results, announcing that the predicted grades set by teachers will stand, and that the moderation applied by the Scottish Qualifications Authority will not be applied.

It will increase the political pressure on the education departments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to follow suit, though the policy case is more clear-cut in Northern Ireland and Scotland than it is in England and Wales.

Why? Because one distinct problem in both Scotland and Northern Ireland is simply that the SQA and CCEA have less information on individual pupils. The task that the SQA set itself was essentially to winnow down a group of 81 children with a passing grade to one of 68 based on nothing more than intuition. In Northern Ireland, similarly, there is no centralised testing taken by all pupils after primary school, leaving the CCEA similarly poorly-equipped to hand out grades even semi-fairly.

In Wales, all students, from the age of seven to the age of 14, take an annual test for both literacy and numeracy. This means that on the most important single qualification any school-leaver will receive or not – a passing grade in English and Maths – Qualifications Wales is, at least, able to draw an evidence-based conclusion about whether they would have received that pass or not.

In England, anyone who fails to pass at 16 will have to resit until either they do or until they turn 18. Ofqual has also been more transparent about the process with teachers from the beginning, which helps. I think this is an imperfect solution, but it is better than the high-stakes lottery that would have taken place in Scotland.

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So the moderation process is palpably less fair in Scotland or Northern Ireland than in England or Wales, in that both teachers and the watchdog in both countries have better information about individual pupils to moderate results from. The important safety rail for people taking GCSE Maths and English in England  is also not present in Scotland. Anyone talking about what outcome would have been “fairest” in a Scottish context has to engage with those basic realities: the stakes have been made a lot higher and the SQA has less information available.

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However, that policy reality is probably secondary to the political headache of moderating results downwards – and in any case, that the Scottish government has moved in this way puts the other governments in a difficult position. The Westminster government has vowed not to abandon moderation – but it may end up having to.