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by Jenni Davidson
07 June 2021
In context: the SQA appeals process

Room set out for an exam - Image credit: Eric E Castro via Flickr

In context: the SQA appeals process

What is the issue?

Following the outrage over the Scottish Government and SQA’s handling of student grading last year and the cancellation of exams for the second year in a row, the 2021 assessment and appeals system was to be put in place by the SQA in consultation with teachers, pupils and parents. This year’s alternative assessment process has already been controversial, with parents complaining that pupils have had to sit multiple assessments, sometimes more than one in a day, that are simply ‘exams by another name’ with no exam leave, little preparation time and after having been out of school for most of the year, causing pupils a great deal of stress and anxiety. There have also been reports of the assessment papers being shared online. The second part of the process, an outline of the appeals system, was due by early May at the latest, but has only just been published three weeks before pupils learn their provisional results.


What is the appeals process this year?

For the first time in Scotland, pupils will have a direct right of appeal, with the option to register with the SQA from Friday 25 June that they want to appeal their provisional result. Schools, colleges and training providers will still be able to submit an appeal on behalf of their pupils too. Appeals will be processed by SQA after pupils receive their results certificates on Tuesday 10 August. Priority will be given to those whose grades are required for a university or college place or an offer of employment. Grades can go up, go down or stay the same. There are three types of appeal: an appeal against the academic judgement made, an appeal over an administrative error and an appeal on grounds of discrimination, but no new academic evidence can be submitted.

Like many young people across Scotland, we were hugely disappointed by the appeals process announced today. Young people have suffered over the last year and a process which does not uphold their human rights is simply not acceptable

What has the response been?

The fact that the process is free and pupils and their families can appeal directly has met with approval, as that was something young people had requested, but otherwise the response has not been positive. The main criticism has been that if pupils appeal, their mark may be put down rather than up after consideration of the evidence. This was branded a “perverse gamble” by the Scottish Greens’ education spokesperson, Ross Greer. It is also contrary to the “no detriment” system recommended by the children’s commissioner. There is upset too that pupils’ personal circumstances, such as serious illness, mental health problems or bereavement, will not be taken into account in the appeals process. And since no new evidence will be considered, it will be difficult for a pupil to successfully challenge the mark they have been given. Labour’s education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “Essentially centres will be reviewing the same set of assessments. If young people feel that their ability is not reflected in these grades, they have no recourse whatsoever.”

Response from the Scottish Youth Parliament

“Like many young people across Scotland, we were hugely disappointed by the appeals process announced today. Young people have suffered over the last year and a process which does not uphold their human rights is simply not acceptable.

“We welcome the fact that the process will be free and will include a direct appeal to the SQA and that there will be support put in place for young people’s mental health, which are things we have called for.

“However, young people have been making the point for months that a fair and robust appeals process must include a policy of no detriment so young people are not unfairly deterred from appealing. It also must take into account the exceptional circumstances that many young people have gone through over the past year, including bereavement, illness, and mental health challenges. This appeals system does neither of those two things.

“SYP is a member of the SQA’s National Qualifications Group and have argued strongly in that group that the appeals process needed to do these two things to avoid breaching young people’s rights. Unfortunately, the SQA have chosen to disregard those views in publishing their process and not meaningfully engaged with young people in its development.

“We hope that, going forward, the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law will ensure that rights breaches of this kind become a thing of the past.”

Liam Fowley, member of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP)


How do appeals normally work?

Appeals are usually made by schools to the SQA if they believe a pupil has underperformed compared to what was expected. Until 2013 appeals were free, but since 2014 the SQA has charged for the paper to be reviewed if the appeal is unsuccessful. It also then became possible for grades to go down as well as up and the grounds for appeal became much more limited, with the only options being re-marking the exam or noting exceptional circumstances such as serious illness or bereavement, rather than looking at pupils’ coursework and prelim performance, as was the case before. Charging for appeals has been particularly controversial. Appeals reduced significantly after the change, with state schools far less likely to appeal on behalf of their pupils than private schools. Private schools have been around three times as likely to challenge a grade as a state school since the charge was introduced.

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