Swinney to reverse 124,000 qualification downgrades following exams results day outrage

Dan Sanderson
·5 mins read
John Swinney confirmed the major climbdown on Tuesday - PA/Colin Fisher
John Swinney confirmed the major climbdown on Tuesday - PA/Colin Fisher

John Swinney has dramatically scrapped a controversial qualifications system that saw thousands of Scottish teenagers receive downgraded awards on results day.

Just a week after students received their results, Scotland’s Education Secretary said a decision to downgrade 124,000 awards would be reversed, with grades to instead be based wholly on teacher recommendations.

It followed widespread outrage at a “moderation” process that relied heavily on the past performance of schools in deciding whether grades would be changed, following the cancellation of this year’s exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The system, drawn up by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and originally backed by SNP ministers, meant those from poorer areas were far more likely to see grades reduced from teacher recommendations than those from richer parts of the country.

A similar row is likely to break out in other UK nations this week, with A Level results to be published on Thursday and England using a broadly similar system as was originally used in Scotland to assess students.

Teengers protested against the Scottish Government and SQA - Andrew Milligan/PA
Teengers protested against the Scottish Government and SQA - Andrew Milligan/PA

At Holyrood, Mr Swinney offered an apology to students who had been affected by the system.

He said: “I am today directing the SQA to re-issue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment.

"Schools will be able to confirm the estimates they provided for pupils to those that are returning to school this week and next.

"The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and, importantly, will inform Ucas and other admission bodies of the new grades as soon as practical in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed."

Around 9,000 grades which were increased as part of the moderation process will not be reduced.

Ministers had originally argued the system was necessary to protect the credibility of the exams system. The u-turn now means that there has been double-digit increases in pass rates, compared to last year.

As a result of the changes announced, the new Higher pass rate for 2020 is 89.2 per cent, 14.4 percentage points higher than the previous year.

The National 5 pass rate has also increased by 10.7 points to 88.9 per cent, as well as the Advanced Higher pass rate rising to 93.1 per cent - a rise of 13.7 percentage points.

Former Scottish Tory leaders Ruth Davidson and Jackson Carlaw both called on Mr Swinney,  Nicola Sturgeon's most trusted minister, to resign. Mr Swinney said he had “fixed” the issue and rejected calls to his resignation when challenged in the Holyrood chamber.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, wecomed the u-turn but said that Mr Swinney had been warned about the unfairness of the system in advance.

He said: “Why did he defend the results of the moderation five days? Why was there no contrition, no apology no U-turn until now? 

“Why did he leave these young people twisting in the wind for a week, hopes and aspirations in shreds?

“I commend him for taking responsibility now and trying to fix this. But I ask him, will he take responsibility for this happening in the first place, and resign?”

Mr Swinney is facing a vote of no confidence this week, after presiding over the fiasco. As he has agreed to demands of the Scottish Greens in reversing the downgrades, while also agreeing to wider reviews of the exams system, it is likely that Holyrood’s other pro-independence party will back him allowing him to survive.

Teenagers were angry at how they had been treated - Andrew Milligan/PA
Teenagers were angry at how they had been treated - Andrew Milligan/PA

Ms Sturgeon admitted that concerns that employers would now question the value of the awards, given the inflated pass rate, had not gone away but said this year’s cohort should be treated as “unique”.

At her daily briefing, she said: “The issue that I articulated last week [that employers may see 2020 results as less credible] doesn’t just go away.

“That concern has been outweighed in my mind in the days that have passed since, by this sense that having some young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, thinking the system is stacked against them. That for me is a bigger issue, I don’t want that to be the case.

“Maybe we just need to see 2020 being more unique, and just accept that it is unique. Hopefully by the exam diet next year we’ll be out of this and this year will be truly unique.

"If it is the case that some young people’s teacher estimates are above what statistically they would have been predicted to get in an exam, not individually but statistically, when you weigh that against the enormous disadvantage that young people have been served up as a result of Covid, maybe we’re just balancing out a little bit.”