BBC Scotland and Herald mislead you as exam pass rates rise again

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Horror show as damning Scottish journalism report is unveiled here?

The Herald headline and to a lesser extent that on BBC Scotland, this morning, is misleading. See these tables from the report in question:

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The headline story is that a very high number of Scottish pupils are leaving with qualifications and that in almost every case above, the trend is still upward in 2019. Look at the last three rows! In every case the rate has risen significantly from 2016 and in one or two cases, it is down but insignificantly, by less than 1% from 2018.

There have been small (2-3%) but significant falls in the pass rates for English and Mathematics Higher but at the same time comparable increases in Science and in Mathematics, N5.

Statisticians, will of course, tell you that a one-year change is not a meaningful trend. Only when you look at a change over 3 to 5 years do you see anything worth talking about.

Finally, it is both insulting and erroneous to discount the successes in subjects other than English and Mathematics. Many of these develop communication and mathematical skills in a more real context often more useful to employers than the more abstract ways, useful only for further study in higher education, favoured by these two ‘core’ subjects. In addition, the Scottish economy and society requires far more broadly-educated citizens than an obsession with English and Mathematics can offer.

Click to access 2019%2Bexam%2Bresults%2Banalysis.pdf

14 thoughts on “BBC Scotland and Herald mislead you as exam pass rates rise again”

  1. The results aren’t the issue with Tories/BBC (same thing?). If improvements went across the board, they would find fault with the colour of pen for marking, or the shade of paper or the day of the week………………………..

    Some of our wondrously biased press though it a fault that the results were published (sneaked out, in Trump-speak) at 8PM–just in time for tomorrows editions of the papers you would have thought—but no—its dark at that time of night, and they need daylight to froth at the mouth properly!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It certainly was NOT “to a lesser extent on the BBC”! It was the big ticket issue on Good Morning Scotland, presented in the context of an FoI request by EIS activist, self-proclaimed ‘educational expert’ and sometime Ferret reporter James McEnaney, who claimed that the response to his request had ‘appeared unannounced on the SG website the previous evening, with ‘previously redacted’ data now available. He hinted that this suggested that the SG had ‘something to hide’. Then there were selected data such as those on English and Maths which you indicate. When John Swinney was interviewed the tone was, as usual accusing, with every response eventually interrupted. There were then vox’ pops’ in the form of tweets from ‘a teacher in East Kilbride’ and others, all, anonymous. This, in itself was pretty bad, even by BBC Scotland standards, but there were THREE other anti-SG stories immediately following it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to do a series of stretching and breathing exercises in the morning after I get up and, I have the radio on when I am doing these. The exercising gets rid of the adrenalin that is generated by my annoyance at the lies and bias.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. If there is a fall, note ‘if’, then how much of that is due to the fact that pupils now have to sit longer exams – at least 30 min longer and sometimes up to 40 mins than they di prior to 2017-18 when the longer exams started to be phased in?

    The reason for this? Teachers wanted rid of the unit assessments to reduce their workload. In order to maintain the integrity of the certificate exams they had to make the exams longer. Basically teachers reduced their workload by passing it onto the pupils. But within months of getting Agreement on this change and before the changes had been introduced the teachers decided that it did not reduce their workload!! Too late the changes had to go ahead and have been phased in a year at a time. But of course it is all the fault of the SG.

    On the subject of stats on school exam results here is a useful paper

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for the link to TES. Unfortunately people only listen to headlines and a bit of sometimes very superficial analysis. Until the public can be convinced to look at more than one source of information we will always have a problem with readers/listeners accepting the first opinion they read/hear.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Indeed. In the SG paper published yesterday there are various places where readers are cautioned about comparing 2019 with prior year Exam Diets due to the changes – the evolution – in course assessment/examination that you refer to. The submission by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) makes this very point (on page 4):

      “It is recognised that due to the removal of units and unit assessments, significant changes have taken place over the past few years, particularly last session. In practice, this meant that for the 2019 exam diet there were thirty six out of thirty eight subjects with changes to Higher question papers. This followed changes in 2018 to forty one out of forty four question papers across subjects in National 5 courses.”

      ADES concludes: “This also means that any comparison between pass rates in the 2018 and 2019 SQA diets should be treated with caution.”

      The SG’s paper is notable for the granularity of detail (quantitative and qualitative) on exam performance given by the contributing bodies and their expert assessors. However, its hard amongst all this information to discern an overall ‘system’ crisis: rather it is a public education system challenged by its ongoing process of modernisation and of course it’s one set in an economic system in which the SG has only a small subset of the levers of fiscal and no monetary power.

      I did find this from the SQA’s Course Report on Higher History especially ‘interesting’ though.

      “Question paper 2 — Scottish history: Centres should ensure they prepare candidates with specific Scottish historical knowledge.” !!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Reminds me of the recent stooshie about “highly qualified Scottish students prevented from going to Scottish Universities”. The UCAS website has lots of data on the subject.

    UCAS on results Aug 2019: “The current total number of Scottish students accepted is a fall of 4 per cent compared to SQA results day 2018, although this also comes alongside a 3.1 per cent drop in the total number of 18 year olds in Scotland’s population. As of 30 June 2019, there were 1,600 fewer applicants from Scotland, also a 3 per cent fall compared to 2018.”

    So the drop is mostly explained by there being less 18 year olds in the population.

    The last UCAS data I can find is at end Sept 2019, which appears to be when clearing is finished.
    The total number of Scottish University places is down by 2.4%. The total number of students from Scotland getting placed is down by 3.4% Hardly something to get incensed about? It seems unlikely to me that those overall figures will have changed much. If anyone can see more recent data that has caused the stooshie, let me know.

    As we all know, and UCAS point out in their latest report – “In Scotland, there is a substantial section of provision that is not included in UCAS’ figures. This is mostly full-time higher education provided in further education colleges, which represents around one third of young full-time undergraduate study in Scotland.” ONE THIRD!!

    There are 32,420 University places, hence 32420/2 = 16,210 FE places, and a significant proportion of those go on to degrees at University. Does anyone know how many?
    I am prepared to guess the vast majority of FE students are Scots.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You note correctly that UCAS figures for Scotland do NOT include the substantial Higher Education provision delivered by Scotland’s FE colleges.

      But there is one other factor that is rarely taken into account in partisan media/political comment. This is the fundamental difference in the Scottish and English university systems.

      Scotland has no ‘low tariff’ universities, only mid and high tariff institutions: ‘tariff’ is UCAS jargon for its measure of ease of entry to a university based on the level of qualifications it requires of successful applicants. (I’d need to check but I seem to recall recent UCAS data pointing out that a higher proportion of Scottish students from more deprived areas are successful in gaining entry to high tariff universities than in England.)

      The latest UCAS data on undergraduate admissions can be found here:

      Here is one of many statistics of interest: “Universities and colleges in England accepted a total of 458,570 students, 2.1% more than last year, and a new record. Students from England account for 82.9% of those accepted, with 8.5% from outside the EU, 5.7% from other EU countries, and 2.8% from the rest of the UK. All these proportions are SIMILAR TO RECENT YEARS.” So no obvious flight of students from Scotland to England. For Scotland the proportion of students from the rUK in 2018 was 11.1%.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. On the evening Radio Scotland news programme this theme continued, with the innuendo of Mr McEnaney’s initial piece of flummery being the headline. The programme interviewed a Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow and Mr L.Flanagan, General Secretary of the EIS. The Professor was asked, “Is Scottish education getting worse?” To which her answer was, “No” and, in a long reply, indicated that she believed that there had been significant improvements. Mr Flanagan was not asked the same question, because to say “yes’ would have begged questions about the role played by teachers in this ‘decline’. (Of course the BBC would not ask such a question). He was pretty circumspect in his responses. Had he taken the line Mr McEnaney had taken, he would have been perceived by many of his members as being in cahoots with the Tories.

    Clearly, this stooshie had nothing really to do with education, but as a very strong attack by the BBC on the SG, given the three other damning stories that accompanied this. It also raises questions about the motivations of Mr McEnaney.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Alasdair about the politicised nature of this ‘stooshie’. In fact BBC Scotland and its education expert is missing a huge opportunity: there is enormous scope for doing some sustained, serious, considered and informative journalism as a public service in what is actually a hugely important, complex and challenging subject in terms of both policy and delivery. (As there is for BBC Scotland on health and social care!)

      In 2015, at the request of the Scottish Government, the OECD published a review of Curriculum for Excellence ( ) As we are bombarded with negativity today, its worth remembering what the OECD concluded:

      “The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is an important reform to put in place a coherent 3-18 curriculum. It privileges learning and a holistic understanding of what it means to be a young Scot growing up in today’s world.

      At its heart are the four fundamental capacities: i) Successful Learners, ii) Confident Individuals, iii) Responsible Citizens, and, iv) Effective Contributors. Up to around age 15, the aim is to lay the foundations for lifetimes of learning through Broad General Education (BGE), incorporating primary and the first stages of secondary schooling but also early learning from age 3 onwards. BGE is the main object of this OECD review.

      There is a great deal to be positive about in such a review: learners are enthusiastic and motivated, teachers are engaged and professional, and system leaders are highly committed. There has been intensive activity to create suites of support materials and a drive to address excessive bureaucracy. There have been extensive professional learning events organised throughout Scotland.

      CfE has been anchored in consensus and a wider set of parallel reforms.”

      This 2015 OECD report is no whitewash: it makes substantial criticisms and tough recommendations. But it was positive in terms of policy intent and achievements so far. The SG has recently commissioned the OECD to revisit its review of the Scottish school education system. The findings of the new research will be awaited with ‘impatience’.

      SG ministers have indeed had a role to play along with their officials in designing and delivering Curriculum for Excellence but so have academic educationalists, local government education departments, the teacher unions, headteachers, school department heads and indeed to an extent all classroom teachers.

      It is notable that Directors of Education in Scotland have begun to push back on the partisan negativity – see this from December 2019 (

      ” ‘It’s guff that Scottish education is terrible’ – Scottish education directors publish dossier in bid to challenge the narrative of failure in Scottish education”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. stewartb, I agree fully with the wish expressed in your opening paragraph. These reports and those such as the Auditor General’s and even some from MSP Committees are generally pretty objective. They recognise good aspects and indicate areas where changes should be considered. They are literally, ‘constructively critical’.

        Some of the action points, to be implemented, require political action – i.e. there needs to be an informed public debate because implementation entails making choices about spending public money, which might be ‘new’ money or money diverted from other policy areas. Some will require changes to the law, which might include sanctions for failing to observe the law.

        This is the kind of debate that the media ought to be engaging in. It was what John Reith meant when he spoke of the ‘informing, and educating’ role (although, I suspect that he intended informing and educating in a propagandising way). In cultural and other ways, sections of the BBC have played a transformative role. For example, many dramas over the years have been ‘cutting edge’, the Natural History Unit has done epic work, there has been sterling work on Gaelic.

        Sadly, News and Current Affairs has, become an increasingly and overtly propaganda arm of Government (it always was to a fair extent), but, in Scotland we have a group which is not only flagrantly and mendaciously hostile to the current Scottish Government, to the general of devolution, to public services and to the promulgation of a concept of Scottish ‘inferiorism’.

        Since the 2014 referendum a great many people in Scotland, including many NO voters have been far more aware of this contemptuous approach and trust has fallen and is unlikely to be restored.

        There is also a rapacious cliquishness within it. There are close relationships with other media people and the hierarchies of the Scottish Labour and Unionist parties, and the private (‘top’ in BBC jargon) schools with an ‘I scratch your back’ mindset’ and the hostility to change is partly ‘a circling of the wagons’ to protect their privileges from ‘others’ – i.e. the majority of the people who live in Scotland and who (decreasingly, pay the licence fee.


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