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6 August 2020

Scottish Qualifications Authority inundated with appeals after downgrading exam results

Thousands of school leavers in Scotland are expected to challenge the grades they received after being unable to sit exams.

By Rohan Banerjee

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is facing a backlash from students after it went against over 100,000 recommendations from teachers for this year’s Higher and Level 5 results.

Students were unable to sit exams for their Highers – similar to A-Levels and GCSEs – due to lockdown measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, qualifications have been graded according to a mix of teachers’ assessments, predicted grades, and schools’ past performance, all arbitrated by the SQA.

Many students in Scotland could miss out on the Higher grades they need to meet their university offers and are lodging appeals against the decisions.

Nevertheless, the SQA did award a high number of passes this year, with the number of National 5 passes rising by nearly three points from the previous year to 81.1 per cent. The number of Higher passes, meanwhile, rose by 4.1 points to 78.9 per cent.

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And the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) confirmed that the number of Scottish students who earned a university place in Scotland overall had increased by 220 this year to 28,240.

But the issues have arisen largely, it would appear, at the upper end of the grade scale. Schools were asked to recommend exam results for students based on their previous performance, but the SQA changed 133,000 of these, with only 7 per cent of grades pushed up. Most of the changes resulted in a student receiving a full grade below the recommendation.

In normal circumstances, the SQA would charge students who wanted to appeal a grade decision £39.95 per qualification, but the organisation has confirmed that these fees will be waived in anticipation of mass appeals in the coming days. The authority has said it will process all appeals by 14th August, giving enough time for UCAS to confirm university places starting in September.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson and himself a former teacher, was crticial of the process that has led to so many lower grades. He told the Guardian: “The SQA have done this on the basis of each school’s past performance, marking the school, not the pupil, and baking in the attainment gap. They were told that this would be grossly unfair and it is.” Gray added that the SQA had treated teachers’ own professional judgment – of students they know closely – with “contempt”.