The Scottish government has got it badly wrong over its exam results

England, Wales and Northern Ireland's governments should learn from its mistake ahead of their own exam results on 13 August.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Is the Scottish government giving poorer pupils a bad deal? The publication of Scottish students’ final grades – derived this year using a combination of preliminary examinations, predicted grades from teachers, and moderated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) – has provoked uproar, after the SQA’s moderation reduced the number of A-C grades for pupils in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution by 6.9 per cent, but reduced the number of A-C grades for those at the bottom by 15.2 per cent.

The process has produced a number of heartbreaking individual stories – of formerly straight-A students who have received Cs or Ds at Higher, whose path to their dream course or apprenticeship has been unexpectedly blocked. What are the SQA thinking?

In a “normal” year, we would expect a gap in results between pupils from richer and poorer households. We call this the attainment gap, and thanks to a series of cross-party school reforms in England, the gap had begun to close, and did so steadily until 2018. (This process has recently begun to go into reverse, potentially as a consequence of recent changes to how GCSEs work, or of the long-term effect of spending cuts in education and elsewhere, or a combination of both.)

Those improvements did not happen in Scotland, however, and one of Nicola Sturgeon’s first acts as First Minister in 2015 was to launch the Attainment Challenge, an attempt to close that gap. Small but significant improvements have taken place in literacy, though the gap in numeracy remains unchanged. School improvements take a while to kick in, however, so the evidence suggests that Scotland’s education system is moving in the right direction.

These moderated results continue those modest and incremental improvements towards closing the attainment gap, from a 16.4 per cent gap between the most and least deprived in 2019 to a gap of 14.7 per cent in 2020. Without moderation, the attainment gap would have persisted, but fallen further: to just 6.4 per cent. 

The unmoderated results would also have been the best single set of academic results from Scottish schools, for the rich and poor alike, to date – for context, they would have represented the same level of progress in exam results as achieved over a period of two decades anywhere in the United Kingdom.

So it doesn’t seem all that likely the unmoderated results are a more "accurate" account of how pupils would have done. They would potentially have created unfairness too, because next year’s students, who will hopefully take their exams as normal, will almost certainly do less well. (With the greatest of respect to everyone involved, I think it is unlikely that the first year of post-lockdown schooling is going to see a 20 per cent improvement in results across the board from 2019.) Add to that the effect that lost time at school will have on pupil performance, and you can see the argument for moderating the results as the SQA has done. They are, undoubtedly, in aggregate, a fairer and more accurate picture of what this year's exam results would have been in normal times than simply going on predicted grades would produce.

Nonetheless, I would not have had done it, and there is an opportunity for the relevant ministers to learn from the mistake ahead of the publication of results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on 13 August.

Why not? Well, an integral part of results day is that, while some people do much better than expected, and some much worse, the pupils have at least had the opportunity to shape their own destiny. In this case, however, their characteristics and the performances of their schools have been given the casting vote – that’s a much, much harder blow to take than doing unexpectedly badly in exams. Some people have received worse results than they would have got had the exams taken place, while others have benefited. The aggregate results are more "fair" yes, but our lives aren’t lived in the aggregate. The people who have had their results downgraded are experiencing a great unfairness, both in the top and the bottom of the income distribution.

More importantly, the Scottish government has got the balance of risks wrong here. The downside risk of a one-off period of grade inflation is that you have a couple of school-leavers whose grades overstate their abilities – frankly, that is a problem that higher and further education institutions, as well as businesses, will be able to work through. The certain downside of the moderated results is that some people will have worse grades than they would have received, and it will take them many, many years of work to recover – if they do at all.

This year’s school-leavers face a situation where many universities are threatened with financial collapse, very few firms are taking on new starters or apprenticeships, and graduate schemes will for many years likely be curtailed. An optimistic assessment of how they might have done in their cancelled exams is a small favour considering those very difficult headwinds.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS