Scottish results
Image: WIkimedia commons / Michal Klajban

Poorest pupils punished in Scottish exam results downgrade

Students in the most deprived areas of Scotland are more likely to have had their final exam results downgraded during national moderation than those in the most affluent areas.

In the absence of exams amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ grades have been estimated by their teachers and looked over for moderation by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

More than a quarter (26.2%) of grades have been adjusted by the SQA, with 93.1% of these downgraded from their teacher-estimates.

But this downgrading has disproportionately impacted students living in poor areas. Of those students taking higher exams – the equivalent of A-levels – the pass rate of pupils living in the most deprived areas was reduced by more than twice that of pupils in the most affluent locations.

The pass rate for pupils in the most deprived areas dropped by 15.2% after moderation, while the pass rate for students in the most affluent areas was reduced by only 6.9%.

As part of the moderation process, the SQA adjusted students’ grades to align with the “historic attainment” of their schools. But education experts have criticised this approach for penalising students at schools in deprived areas that have historically underperformed.

“The core of the SQA’s methods is that each school’s attainment is constrained to look more or less the same as it has been in recent years,” education policy expert Professor Lindsay Paterson told The Scotsman.

The method adopted has decided children’s future based on their postcode or the previous performance of their school, not their performance in the classroom

– Ian Murray

“So an outstanding student in an average school will be likely to have had their grades pulled down.”

Ian Murray, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, has criticised the “unfair” moderation system and its impact on students’ chances for future education. 

“The method adopted has decided children’s future based on their postcode or the previous performance of their school, not their performance in the classroom,” he said.

“As a result, thousands of pupils from poor communities have now had their futures stolen.”

Although the total pass rate has increased on last year – rising from 74.8% in 2019 to 78.9% in 2020 – those students who have been downgraded risk missing out on the grades needed to meet their university offers.

Olivia Biggart was estimated to achieve five As by her teachers but was only awarded two As and three Bs after the SQA after moderation, putting her plans of continuing into Medicine in jeopardy.

Similarly, Eva Peteranna said on Twitter that she was predicted three As, a B and a C, but was downgraded in all subjects, including in Psychology where her grade was reduced from a B to an F.

Mr Murray said his “inbox has been deluged with emails from worried pupils and parents – and it’s the same for MPs and MSPs across Scotland”.

Students can appeal their awarded grades and the SQA has waived the usual £39.95 fee in anticipation of a torrent of challenges in the coming weeks.

It hopes all appeals submitted by 14 August will be processed in time for UCAS to confirm university places in September.

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