Commissioner’s Statement: Response to Ministerial Statement on SQA Exam Results 2020

The Scottish Government has announced that pupils whose results were downgraded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are to receive new grades based solely on teacher and lecturer estimates.

Following campaigning from young people, Ministers have directed the SQA to re-issue downgraded awards solely on the basis of teacher judgement, without reference to historical patterns.

The Deputy First Minister John Swinney apologised to the 75,000 young people whose estimated mark was reduced by the SQA and said that the downgraded awards risked “young people, particularly from working class backgrounds losing faith in education and forming the view that no matter how hard you work, the system is against you.”

As a result:

  • Where a teacher estimate was adjusted down by the SQA, candidates will receive the grade the teacher awarded.
  • Candidates whose entries were adjusted up by the SQA will retain the higher grade.
  • The SQA will inform schools of the revised results by Friday 21 August for schools to tell pupils. New certificates will be issued in due course.
  • The SQA will provide new grades to UCAS and other college and university admissions bodies, and the Scottish Government will ensure enough places at colleges and universities so that all places awarded to young people can be taken up.
  • In recognition of the fact that there remains the need for the option of an appeal in some circumstances and detail on this will be set out by the end of the week.

Our office and our Young Advisers Group have been raising concerns about how the SQA has handled this since the announcement the exams would not take place: 

  • We first wrote to the SQA’s Chief Executive in April, again in July, and raised concerns with Scottish Government officials in meetings in June and July. Throughout the summer we were in touch with SQA officials about our concerns.
  • Our Young Advisers Group conducted a rapid children’s rights impact assessment in June which was provided to SQA.
  • In June, we also highlighted our concerns in evidence to the Education and Skills Committee
  • We published an independent Children’s Rights Impact Assessment in July.
  • We wrote to the Deputy First Minister and to the SQA on 7 August calling for an apology and remedy to be put in place.
  • In August we spoke to Police Scotland to encourage them in taking a human rights-based approach to policing the Glasgow demonstration and to protect children’s rights to peaceful protest.
  • We supported the “SQA Where’s Our Say” group to hold a virtual meeting with young people on 10 August in which they were able to express their concerns.

Following today’s announcement Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said: 

“Credit for this announcement goes to the young human rights defenders who have been speaking out all week about the unfairness they’ve experienced. From the powerful work of the ‘SQA Where’s Our Say’ group, to the young protesters exercising their rights to peaceful protest. They have demonstrated why young people should have had a seat at the table. 

“SQA and Scottish Government must recognise that, as those whose rights are most affected, children and young people have the right to be included in all decision making. The right to education requires that children are supported to develop to their full potential. The awards system is an important part not just of recognising achievements, but also ensuring that young people can progress in their education or employment.  

“The statistical modelling approach resulted in a set of data which may have looked fair and reasonable – even progressive – when viewed from an elevated perspective, but which wasn’t fair to too many individuals. It privileged the appearance of fairness over actual fairness.

“The Scottish Government’s apology is an important part of providing an effective remedy and the changes announced today will give justice to many. We welcome the fact that young people will get at least the grades estimated by teachers based on an holistic assessment from a wide range of evidence. This is a much fairer assessment of their achievements. We also welcome the provision of additional places in further and higher education, which must be fully funded. 

“The Scottish Government promised to make this right for all young people, that must include not only  those disadvantaged by the SQA’s moderation and certification process but also those who disagree with their teacher’s estimate, who did not receive an estimate or who were disadvantaged by the alternative processes. We look forward to receiving additional details on the appeal process.”

The Scottish Government has also announced further reviews in order to learn lessons and plan for next year:

  • Ministers have asked Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University to conduct an independent review of the events following the cancellation of the examination diet and make recommendations for the coming year. This will initially report within five weeks.
  • The OECD’s ongoing independent review of Curriculum for Excellence will be asked to include recommendations on how to transform Scotland’s approach to assessment and qualifications, based on global best practice.

The Commissioner has welcomed the further reviews, saying:

“The commitment to further reviews of the model of certification, ranking and awards is welcome. It is a chance for young people to exercise their right to be included in the decision making process   to address the inequality and unfairness that currently exists.  It is important that any review is based on children’s human rights and ensures the inclusion of young people from the start.”

The Commissioner warned that lessons must be learned from the failure to involve young people in decision making:

“Young people had the right to be part of all these decisions. They were the ones most affected and it is indefensible that they weren’t given a say. If nothing else it would have been a reminder to those charged with making the decision that their first duty was not to the system – it was to the young people who’d had their education disrupted and whose futures were at stake. The changes announced by the Scottish Government will provide justice to many, but decision makers also need to learn this lesson and ensure that in future young people are involved from the start.”

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