From Alasdair Macdonald

The SQA ‘Technical Report – National Qualifications 2020 Awarding — Methodology Report’ requires a fair bit of concentration and close examination of the data to comprehend it fully.

My feeling is that in these unique and unprecedented circumstances, the SQA has done its job as fairly as it could and has erred slightly on the side of leniency. I think that they have explored all the possibilities in some depth and have settled on a methodology which is the best that could have been done in the circumstances. The SQA staff involved have faced up to a very difficult task and have acted transparently and with a great deal of professional rigour and courage. They deserve our thanks and commendation.

The appeal system has still to take place and we will see how this is tackled.

I think the most striking statistic is the percentage of teacher estimates – in schools across the socio-economic spectrum – which indicate the top grade. This is more than 10% above the previous historic data, based on the examination system. Although the other ‘pass’ grades are slightly higher than the historic data, it is in the top grades that there is the greatest disparity. It is also noteworthy that in the historic data, there is evidence of teacher estimates of awards at the top grades being consistently greater than the actual top grades awarded. The historic data was based on the full range of moderation data being available.

Clearly many young people, through no fault of their own, have had their expectations raised and are understandably upset and feel aggrieved.

Although most of the adjustments in grading made by the SQA have been to reduce the grade, approximately 1 in 11 had the grading increased. Most of the reductions in grade were to the grade below and so most did, in fact, get a ‘pass’, albeit at a lower level than they had been led to expect.

Also, many students actually got the awards predicted, but one or two were at a lower level. For example, one of the students (who spoke very well), indicated she had been predicted to get 2A awards and 2 Bs, but attained 2As, 1B and 1C. This is a very fine achievement, but the ‘slippage’ of one grade has occurred for many students every year over many decades. Some of these, in the past have been restored on appeal.

It seems to me that the problem is rooted in how teachers arrived at their estimates and the procedures used within the subject departments to moderate the reliability of these, the moderation procedures within each school and the moderation procedures of the Councils’ Education Departments.

The Appeals system will require the subject teachers to provide further evidence to justify their original estimates. I hope for the young people that such evidence is persuasive in many cases, but, I fear, in most, it will not.

We have a set of results which is a little more generous than in previous years, but is not so different from previous years as to cast doubt of the validity of the awards for ALL students in this particular year.

Much of the reporting and outrage is focussed on the results for young people at schools serving areas of higher levels of multiple deprivation. Sadly, for societal and economic reasons beyond the ability of schools alone to deal with, the aggregate levels of attainment has tended to be lower than those forScotland as a whole. The ‘gap’ between such schools and others has been narrowing, fairly steadily over the years and, in 2020, that narrowing has continued.

I sat my Highers in 1965 and attained 5As and 1B. In these years, the school system was ‘selective’ and I was one of the 35% who had passed the ‘Qualy’ and attended a Senior Secondary. I was born and raised in an area of multiple deprivation and for a number of years my family were ‘on benefits’. I also taught for 39 years and the 7 secondary schools in which I taught were all in the lower half of Scottish schools ranked by levels of deprivation. 2 of those schools were in the 10% of ‘most deprived’. Every year, in everyone of those schools there were students who attained the highest awards and many others who defied very difficult circumstances to attain very good, although not the highest grades. If there had been ways of having endeavour and application and courage and fortitude recorded on certificates, there are several thousand young people, whose certificates I would have endorsed gladly. We did, of course, provide references for them, but these never had the cachet of SQA certificates.

I have also written examination questions for the SQA, marked examination papers and moderated samples of scripts for SQA. I presented students for examination in every one of those years. Most of my predictions – but not all – were fairly close to what was awarded and I had similar proportions of successful appeals to the national average. Sadly, I did have one year, when my predictions were out of kilter by a fair amount. But, over the course of my career, the general trend of attainment by my students was upwards. There were fluctuations.

Finally, in any school the variation in the attainments across departments can be wide – i.e. students attain poorer grades in a few departments compared to their attainments in other subjects. These differences are often statistically significant and appear year after year. Such variations are evident in schools right across the spectrum. However, in the more affluent areas they are off-set by parents being able to afford private tutoring. In less affluent areas schools can sometimes squeeze money from their budgets or obtain grants to provide some form of ‘supported study’ and many teachers voluntarily provide lunchtime or after school help. But, the problem is societal. It is also political.

Sadly much of the current hoo-haw is political not to change society, but to score cheap political points.

The SQA has provide voluminous information on what they did. Let us hear from the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and others what they would have done in these unprecedented times.

Congratulations to the students for their awards and congratulations, too, to those who have been protesting. Many have made their case with dignity and eloquently.