Nicola Sturgeon overseeing ‘sleekit’ repeat of 2020 exams crisis, claim opponents

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236917773 / 5aeaaf51-6c86-38be-9255-40dcd1730261 Image headline: Scottish Pupils Return To School After Lockdown Original description: GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 12: Pupils return to St Paul's High School for the first time since the start of the coronavirus lockdown nearly five months ago on August 12, 2020 in Kelso, Scotland. Pupils will return to more of Scotland's schools today, as the fallout continues from the governments decision to upgrade exam results.  - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
236917773 / 5aeaaf51-6c86-38be-9255-40dcd1730261 Image headline: Scottish Pupils Return To School After Lockdown Original description: GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 12: Pupils return to St Paul's High School for the first time since the start of the coronavirus lockdown nearly five months ago on August 12, 2020 in Kelso, Scotland. Pupils will return to more of Scotland's schools today, as the fallout continues from the governments decision to upgrade exam results. - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon is overseeing a "more sleekit" repeat of last year's exams crisis with pupils' grades still being reduced "based solely on where they go to school", it has been alleged.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, told First Minister's Questions that teachers were now being ordered to review grades if they were out of kilter with a school's historical performance, rather than the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) performing this role.

He told MSPs that for the second year running this would lead to pupils at the sort of school where "not everyone gets 5 As – the kind of schools the First Minister and I both went to" being more likely to have their grades lowered.

Mr Ross warned Ms Sturgeon that the "2021 exams crisis has already started" and demanded she take urgent action.

He added: "Young people feel cheated by another deeply unfair system that judges where they’re from, not how they did."

The First Minister insisted that the system for awarding qualifications is a "world away" from last year's results scandal, which saw the SQA downgrade tens of thousands of results based on schools' historical performance. The original teacher estimates were later restored following a huge outcry.

Ms Sturgeon admitted that a school's results could be "reviewed" if they appear to be "out of step with previous years" but insisted this is merely a "quality assurance" check.

She said this was "not the operation of an algorithm automatically downgrading pupils as would have happened last year" and if teachers "stand by the result they gave, that result stands, it is not changed".

Douglas Ross called the SNP's excuses on education 'absurd' - Russell Cheyne/REUTERS
Douglas Ross called the SNP's excuses on education 'absurd' - Russell Cheyne/REUTERS

However, her denial came after an Education Scotland report disclosed that council education officials will this year assess historical figures for schools' results "to identify and address any unexpected provisional grades".

They will also analyse trends to focus on "identifying and challenging results or attainment patterns which appear anomalous."

Teachers will then be asked to review grades they have awarded.

Several councils have also published their own grading reports, showing they are making “adjustments” based on data analysis and a school’s prior attainment.

Exams have been cancelled for the second year in a row, with pupils' grades to be based on coursework and assessment instead.

Mr Ross said: "The SNP’s excuse is absurd. It’s sheer nonsense to claim grades will be analysed against historic data but that information somehow won’t be used to downgrade pupils.

260920074 / 18627acf-179a-3813-bfdc-27a1921c9b35 Image headline: BRITAIN-SCOTLAND-STURGEON-POLITICS Original description: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends the First Minister's Questions at Holyrood in Edinburgh on June 10, 2021. (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) Image title: AFP_9BT26L.jpg Credit: RUSSELL CHEYNE Source: AFP Filename: TELEMMGLPICT000260920074.jpeg - RUSSELL CHEYNE/AFP via Getty Images
260920074 / 18627acf-179a-3813-bfdc-27a1921c9b35 Image headline: BRITAIN-SCOTLAND-STURGEON-POLITICS Original description: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends the First Minister's Questions at Holyrood in Edinburgh on June 10, 2021. (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) Image title: AFP_9BT26L.jpg Credit: RUSSELL CHEYNE Source: AFP Filename: TELEMMGLPICT000260920074.jpeg - RUSSELL CHEYNE/AFP via Getty Images

“This is the same shambles as last year – it’s just more sleekit. Instead of the SQA marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first."

He also reiterated his challenge to Ms Sturgeon to review the system by which pupils can appeal their National, Higher and Advanced Higher grades when they are unveiled in August.

SNP ministers have warned children could see their grades lowered or increased and Mr Ross said "this year’s system is asking them to roll the dice with their future".

260917525 / 780c158c-95b0-3a50-9f1b-57163621f3e4 Image headline: Nicola Sturgeon Takes First Minister's Questions Original description: EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 10: Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar attends the First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament on June 10, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Russell Cheyne-WPA Pool/Getty Images) Image title: 1233369772 Credit: WPA Pool Source: Getty Images Europe Filename: TELEMMGLPICT000260917525.jpeg - Russell Cheyne/WPA Pool/Getty Images
260917525 / 780c158c-95b0-3a50-9f1b-57163621f3e4 Image headline: Nicola Sturgeon Takes First Minister's Questions Original description: EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 10: Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar attends the First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament on June 10, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Russell Cheyne-WPA Pool/Getty Images) Image title: 1233369772 Credit: WPA Pool Source: Getty Images Europe Filename: TELEMMGLPICT000260917525.jpeg - Russell Cheyne/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said there was "‘no sign that Nicola Sturgeon was listening" and her government had failed to introduce a system to support pupils who have experienced exceptional circumstances, such as the loss of a parent.

He raised the case of a boy whose grades nosedived after he was forced to shield and not return to school because of terminal illness in his family.

Although the boy could present more evidence of his ability in September, Mr Sarwar said he risks losing a conditional apprenticeship place if he waits that long. The Scottish Labour leader said: "Nicola Sturgeon can try and deny it, but we are in the midst of a second exam crisis."

But Ms Sturgeon said: "When the provisional grades are submitted to the SQA they will not be changed because of a school's past performance.

"That is a world away from the situation last year, where algorithms and the past performance of schools automatically changed the performance and the grades of some schools, that is not happening."

Another looming education crisis: Have the Nats learned nothing from last year?

By Alan Cochrane

Nobody seems prepared to give the SNP government the benefit of any doubt when it comes to education. That’s not an especially startling situation, given the complete pig’s ear they made of schools and exams last year.

What is equally astonishing is why so many people voted for them in the Holyrood election last month, after witnessing, often at first hand with their own children, the complete shambles of the examination results.

But, then, we could say that about a lot of policy foul-ups perpetrated by the Nats, but which didn’t prevent people voting for them.

However, at Question Time every one of the opposition party leaders (Tory, Labour and Lib Dem) rounded on Nicola Sturgeon and said they didn’t believe that her government had learned its lessons from last year and was, in fact, heading for another education crisis.

In what looked like concerted action, although it probably wasn’t (they don’t like each other enough for that) Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar and Willie Rennie each selected one aspect of the Sturgeon-education programme and, basically, took it apart.

We’ve been assured that there will be no nonsense about algorithms deciding who gets what grades this year, when twelve months ago kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular, were downgraded much more often than those who attended the posher schools.

Mr Ross simply didn’t believe the First Minister that it will be teachers (and only teachers) who will decide what grades pupils get this year. He claimed there was evidence from several councils that pupils’ grades are being "adjusted" using historical data and local algorithms, in direct contradiction to what the First Minister has told the Scottish Parliament.

He added: "This is the same shambles as last year – it’s just more sleekit. Instead of the SQA marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first."

For his part Mr Sarwar challenged the government’s statement that there would be no exams this year because of schools being closed for so long and pupils’ education so badly affected. But he cited the case of a 6th year girl, whose mother had died only in March, being told that while she might not have any exams she was told that he would have to sit several "assessments".

And he told of a boy whose education had been significantly interrupted but was not given a teacher’s grade personal assessment of one of his strongest subjects but, instead, was told he’d merely be awarded the class average, which was a lower mark than he would have expected, damaging his chances of an apprenticeship.

Mr Sarwar added that these instances bore "all the hallmarks of last year’s crisis", adding: "There has been a year to develop a system that worked, but there are now just days to improve the flawed process and no sign that Nicola Sturgeon is listening."

Willie Rennie had harsh words to say about the SNP government’s claim that it had employed 3,500 new teachers, saying that they had been hired on "shoddy terms and conditions", so much so that some he knew had to take on extra jobs to make ends meet. He insisted that they be given full-time contracts.

Ms Sturgeon said the hiring of teachers was a matter for local authorities and claimed that Mr Rennie would be the first to complain if central government took control of education.

The First Minister insisted that his year’s awards would "be based on teacher judgement, and that teacher judgement will be evidenced by the attainment of pupils, not by past results or algorithms. Furthermore, no grades would be marked down or up because of a school’s past performance".

It was a straightforward guarantee from the First Minister of what’s promised for pupils’ grades this summer. But on the evidence of Thursday, there’s not a great many people who believe her.

We shall see, won’t we.