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?
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.
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!