Exam Results: Times Education Supplement weak on statistics too

By stewartb

I continue to be irritated by the coverage of the SQA exam results for Scotland’s schools. Recall the Scottish Tory Party’s education spokesperson, Oliver Mundell: ‘Education spokesman Oliver Mundell said the widening attainment gap was a “badge of shame” for the first minister.’ (BBC News website) Of course the Tories are comparing statistics for 2022 with 2021.

What is notable is that it was Mr Mundell who demanded that ‘normal’ examinations be re-introduced in 2022: “The SNP must guarantee that every pupil will be able to sit their exams this year as planned.,’ adding “We must get back to the strong exam system that ranked among the best in the world before the SNP came to power.” Did the Tories really expect to shift from teacher-assessed to exam-assessed grades without consequence?

Source https://www.scottishconservatives.com/news/snp-must-guarantee-exams/

However, the negatively-framed coverage of the SQA results extended (disappointingly) to the specialist Times Educational Supplement (TES) Scotland. From its article (published 9 August): ‘The attainment gap, meanwhile, widened at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher when compared to 2020 and 2021. At Higher, for instance, the attainment gap between those students living in the most and least deprived areas is 15 percentage points in 2022, as compared to 7.8 percentage points last year and 6.6 percentage points in 2020.

See https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/secondary/sqa-exam-results-day-2022-what-weve-learned

The implication here is clear: don’t be concerned about spurious statistical comparisons, the attainment gap has widened! It’s hardly countered by this limp add on: ‘In 2019, the attainment gap at Higher was 16.9 percentage points.’ Even here the proper comparison with 2022 is not drawn directly in the text! The Tes article goes on to amplify the spurious: ‘However, opposition politicians have criticised the government for presiding over larger attainment gaps than those recorded in 2020 and 2021.’

But then statistical significance may not be Tes’ strong point! It gives readers this insight’: ‘One secondary teacher messaged Tes Scotland to say they were “devastated” by their students’ Higher results. The teacher said: ”Our higher results are much lower than predicted. We had a robust moderation model. Pupils performing at A throughout the year are getting a D. I work in a deprived area. Is this happening across the board? I’m devastated’.

Who needs more that one individual’s assertion in order to cast doubt on a whole, complex national system of exam setting, exam taking, exam marking, exam grading and subsequent appeals? Tabloid journalists don’t need a decent evidence base ….. but Tes Scotland?

So given all the negative-framing and spurious year-on-year comparisons, it’s all the more notable to discover a statement (9 August) from Universities Scotland. Did anyone see its positively-framed press release being picked up by mainstream media outlets in Scotland or acknowledged by opposition politicians?

‘2,110 young people from the 20 % most deprived areas of Scotland (SIMD20) have accepted a place to go to university in 2022, AN INCREASE OF 25% FROM 2019 (at the same point in the cycle. Young is defined as 19 years of age and under).

‘Commenting on the SQA results day and the pattern of demand for university, Director of Universities Scotland, Alastair Sim said: “It’s pleasing to see a record number of Scottish students gaining a place at their chosen university.

“It is especially welcome to see our COMMITMENT TO WIDENING ACCESS COMING TO FRUITION. We know the pandemic was more challenging for those with the least resources, so to see a 25% rise in the number of young Scots from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university since pre-pandemic times. The increase in pass rates at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher and THE GAP IN ATTAINMENT BEING REDUCED IS WELCOME PROGRESS that will be essential if universities are to continue to meet their targets on widening access.’

The coverage of this one issue exemplifies much of what is problematic about Scotland’s polity today. It would be very different with better balanced news media outlets – more objective and analytical; more consistently challenging of all politicians; favouring the provision of context and perspective; less prone to bias by omission – and as a consequence, a polity with a better informed electorate. No chance of change ’til after independence!


4 thoughts on “Exam Results: Times Education Supplement weak on statistics too

  1. There are 20-25% mature students. There is no attainment gap. These are not included in the figures.. Scotland has the highest educated population in the world pro rata. 15 uni 5.4million people. The highest in the world pro rata. Colleges and apprenticeships (100,000). Life long learning. 30% from school. 25% mature students.15%? EU students. Foreign students who pay the full cost. The next is Canada. 56%.

    Loans and grants for lower income families. Extra support to education for those in care. Loans are not means tested (Labour) so everyone can get one. They have to be paid back in any case. The next highest is Canada.56%. Finland has same no of Unis but not colleges and apprenticeships?

    Many who do not go straight from school to uni but go later. Or go from college. Mature students. Mainly deprived students? Go later and catch up. Those with degrees already. Do a one year course to be employed in teaching. Teachers have higher qualification and higher remuneration than elsewhere. Scotland has one of the best education system in the world. Education according to ability. Not ability to pay. Nurses are educated to degree level and are given extra remuneration. Many educated to degree level can get extra qualifications for other employment.

    Look it up on the internet.

    There is not enough diversity or training on additional needs. That could be improved. More diagnosis. Even for adults and teachers. More understanding but it is being improved all the time. 98% of pupils have a successful outcome and go on to further skills and expectations.

    US to degree level 40%. The attainment gap is higher in the rest of the UK.

    Local authorities have a duty to keep class sizes lower. Instead of the statuary limit.30. (Plus class room assistants). Local authorities education departments employ classroom assistants. Instead of more teachers. Extra teachers would keep the class sizes lower. School are only built when the pupils are resident in the area. New houses being built etc. Leading to overcrowding in the vicinity because the schools needed are not available. The local (unionist) authorities. Councils duty to provide.


  2. I believe the students were at no point any consideration to the three London controlled parties in Scotland. They used the pandemic to have the pass rate increased, with ample coverage from the media, in the full knowledge it would drop once when exams were reintroduced. They saw a political opportunity and took it, the damage they do to Scotland’s reputation is of no interest to them, their ambitions are elsewhere.

    They would lay waste to anything in Scotland to remain in the union, they have already thrown the idea of democracy out the window, there is nothing beyond the pale they will not do to keep Scotland under London control.

    It would be interesting to compare the original 2020 assessment system which was scrapped to the current results to see if it gave a more representative pass rate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. More than 20 years ago, two researchers in education in Scotland, Humes and Patterson, coined the phrase ‘policy community’, to describe the people who are influential in forming education policy in Scotland. The pointed out how small it is and the consequence that most of the people in it actually know each other personally.

    Like any group, this community is as liable to tend towards a consensus view on aspects within its purview. Now consensus building is a good thing, provided there is a wide debate and that people outwith the core group are involved. However, this does not always happen and, indeed, core groups often act in ways to exclude outside views or indeed alternative views from within the group. This is sometimes termed ‘boundary maintenance’ and sometimes people within the core who express other views can become isolated and excluded.

    The people who write for TESS tend to consult the core members of the policy community and, many of these, in my experience, were Labour Party loyalists or trade union activists and so, it is not surprising that the TESS journalists tend to echo the views of the core group.

    The Scottish political media is a similarly small clique, which talks mainly to itself and thus the consensus right wing unionist view appears in almost every newspaper and broadcast programme. I remember asking a BBC Scotland employee what he meant by the BBC’s ‘news values’ and being told that they were a summary of the majority views of the Scottish press.

    The amount of statistical data produced about Scottish education is huge and largely impressive and attempts sincerely to describe what is a complex multi-factorial area. The selective ‘data mining’ which the media and opposition parties and education unions engage is a wilful misuse of good data to present a distorted picture for petty political gain. The true purpose of the data is to evaluate the effectiveness over a longer term of various policies and to indicate useful directions for future policy.

    As Gordon indicates in several fine posts, the role of mature students and FE is usually omitted from the discourse, which focuses on young people between the ages of 15 and 18. The concept of lifelong learning is an admirable one and has been practised by large numbers of people for many years and, in addition to myself, I know hundreds of people who have gained first degrees, masters degrees PhDs, diplomas etc in their 30s and older. Many of these like I was are from the lowest socioeconomic sections. I was in these sections up until the mid 1960s.

    Closing the attainment gap is a worthy aim, but for the media and the opposition is has become a club to assault people – the SG, the SQA, teachers, students, Councils, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Apologies if I have misunderstood but given the difference in assessment methodology (exams not being used in 2020 and 2021) surely this year’s data is best compared with that in 2019 (the last year exams were used) and that shows that the attainment gap narrowed from 16.9pp then to 15pp now. So there is improvement.


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