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Explainer: What led to Scotland's school results fiasco, and why does it matter to Ireland?

Ireland’s Department of Education said that it was “aware” of Scotland’s exam results being released.

Erin Bleakley, aged 17, who had four of her six results downgraded.
Erin Bleakley, aged 17, who had four of her six results downgraded.
Image: PA Images

THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT is scrambling to resolve a controversy over how its State exams were marked in an alternative system devised due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney was forced yesterday to announce that the results would be withdrawn after outrage ensued when it was revealed that some exam results had been downgraded during the process.

John Swinney apologised to pupils affected by the lowering of 124,564 results and confirmed marks moderated upwards will not change.

Instead, the students’ final marks will be “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment”.

The alternative system was devised by the Scottish government to mark students who were sitting the equivalent to the Leaving Certificate exams. It’s similar to the system adopted by the Irish government, which means there may be lessons for this country ahead of Leaving Cert grades which are to be awarded in the coming weeks.

Methodology

As a result of the pandemic, Scotland cancelled its State exams. A new grading system was put in place, with teachers’ estimates of pupils’ attainment moderated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) – a similar approach to Ireland’s.

Swinney said the backlash from angry pupils and parents at the methodology that disproportionately affected pupils from deprived backgrounds “outweighed” the Scottish government’s desire to suppress grade inflation.

In Ireland, the new methodology would involve two parts: assessing students on the work they have done to date – projects, essays and exams done in their final year. Teachers would also take into account progress made during fifth and sixth year. 

The second part is the controversial one: where teachers send in their assessments to the government to ‘standardise’ them – meaning to bring these grades in line with previous State exams, which some argue is an unfair system for students. 

Here are the sets of data this year’s Leaving Cert grades will be compared against:

  • National level for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • School level for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • Candidate level for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • Candidate level for the Junior Certificate results of the 2020 Leaving Certificate cohort of candidates.

This ‘algorithm’ is where the concern has been in Ireland, where critics raised how this could penalise students in schools that traditionally don’t perform well when compared nationally.

Scotland’s problem 

In Scotland’s case, its system resulted in 124,564 pupil’s results being downgraded – about a quarter of all grades handed out by the SQA last Tuesday 4 August.

The SQA also upgraded some results, altering a total of 133,762 results, and submitting 377,308 entries unchanged. A total of 45,454 entries (8.9%) were moderated down from grades A-C to grade D or to no award.

Exam pass rates rose at every level and would have been the highest on record without the SQA downgrading some submitted results, the Education Secretary said.

“Without moderation, pass rates at grades A-C compared to last year would have increased by 10.4 percentage points for National 5, by 14 percentage points for Higher and by 13.4 percentage points for Advanced Higher – annual change never been seen in Scottish exam results,” Swinney said.

What garnered the most controversy is that pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland had their grades reduced by an average of 15.2% – this compares with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.

The Education Secretary faced criticism from pupils, parents and teachers, with opposition politicians calling for him to resign – prompting a significant u-turn. 

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.”

Repeatedly asked to expand on what is going to be announced during her coronavirus briefing yesterday, the First Minister refused to give details but she did say it is not expected every pupil who was downgraded in one of their subjects will have to appeal.

“The most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year,” she said.

On Sunday, Swinney released a statement saying he and the Scottish government had “heard the anger of students who feel their hard work has been taken away”.

“Every student deserves a grade that reflects the work they have done and that is what I want to achieve.

“These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right first time,” he said.

England’s state exam results are due to be announced tomorrow.

‘Ditch school profiling’

Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Riordáin said that Scotland’s experience was further evidence that Ireland needed to “ditch the system of school profiling”.

“I have repeatedly asked both Minister Foley and her predecessor to take steps to guarantee that there will be no school profiling when it comes to grading the Leaving Cert,” he said.

“While both of them have denied that the practice is employed, the Department of Education website says that ‘estimated marks from each school will be adjusted to bring them into line with the expected distribution.’”

He raised fears that:

This means that students from poorer backgrounds will have their grades marked down compared to their peers in more affluent areas.

Ó Riordáin said that Scotland’s example meant that Ireland could face a similar problem in a few weeks’ time unless the Government takes action to review its methodology.

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What does this mean for Ireland

Ireland is adopting a similar process of calculated grading, which will be issued on Monday 7 September

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Education said that it was aware of exam results being released to students in Scotland.

The Department said it had set out to develop “the best possible system” to provide students with fair and accurate results in the absence of them being able to sit the Leaving Cert. 

It must be acknowledged that the system is not the same as a Leaving Certificate and is not a perfect solution. However, it is the best alternative that could be provided.
It is the fairest way possible to tackle the effects that lack of schooling and other problems caused by Covid-19 have had on the Leaving Certificate this year. 

The system was informed by advice from a Technical Working Group comprising experts drawn from the State Examinations Commission, the Inspectorate of the Department of Education, and the Educational Research Centre.

Over in Scotland, the Education Secretary will face a vote of no confidence later this week, tabled by Scottish Labour and supported by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. 

Professor Mark Priestley, of the University of Stirling, has now been asked to conduct review of situation and make recommendations for the coming year, with an initial report due within five weeks. 

- with reporting from Michelle Hennessy and the Press Association

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