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by Andrew Learmonth
10 August 2021
Exam results: Record number of As but pass rate down compared to last year

Exam results: Record number of As but pass rate down compared to last year

The number of Higher pupils achieving an A is up at an all-time high, according to the latest results from the SQA.

However, there was a marked difference in attainment for the richest kids compared to the poorest. 

While there was an 8.6 per cent increase in the number of As achieved by pupils in more affluent areas, the corresponding rise in areas of deprivation was 6.8 per cent.

Nearly 60 per cent of the richest achieved an A compared to 35.6 per cent of the poorest.

Overall, there has been a drop in the number of passes at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher compared to last year. However, the results are up compared to 2019, when students last sat exams, rather than being awarded grades based on teacher judgement. 

The grade A to C pass rate for National 5 this year is 85.8 per cent, as compared to 89 per cent in 2020 and 78.2 per cent in 2019.

The A to C pass rate for Higher this year is 87.3 per cent, as compared to 89.3 per cent in 2020, and 74.8 per cent in 2019.

The Advanced Higher pass rate this year is 90.2 per cent, as compared to 93.1 per cent in 2020, and 79.4 per cent in 2019.

The 2020 results were re-issued after the government was criticised for an algorithm-based moderation of the marks provided by teachers which saw pupils marked down if their school had previously not performed as well in exams. 

Though there was a moderation of the marks put forward by teachers, the government has said there should be no downgrading.  

The disruption caused by COVID saw ministers take the decision to cancel exams for the second year in a row, however, there was anger from pupils and schools over the replacement Alternative Certification Model.

To provide evidence to back up the teachers’ judgement, many students were forced to take exam-like assessments.

The Scottish Government pointed out that the results show the highest number of Higher passes since at least 1999, as well as the highest number of Advanced Higher passes since the qualifications were introduced in 2021.

However, they accepted that the poverty-related attainment gap is wider than it was in 2020.

According to the results, 91 per cent of those living in affluent areas achieved a pass at Higher, compared to 83.1 per cent of those in the poorest areas. 

That's down 1.1 per cent for pupils in the most affluent areas, and 2.5 per cent for those in the most deprived.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman, Oliver Mundell said pupils had been judged "more harshly than last year’s."

“Compared to last year, grades are down across the board. The attainment gap is up. That should set alarm bells ringing that this year’s system is just as flawed and unfair as the shambles pupils suffered last year," he said.

“But most damning of all, pupils from poorer backgrounds have been marked down the most from 2020 to 2021. They are twice as likely to see their grades fall at Higher and Advanced Higher than children from the most affluent areas, year-on-year. 

“That is nothing short of a disgrace. It is apparent that once again, young people have been judged because of where they come from and where they go to school."

Labour's Michael Marra said Scottish education had "suffered from a total lack of leadership this year".

He added: "We see this in everything from the late cancellation of exams, to the shambolic roll out of the Alternative Certification Model, to the appeals system which took none of this year’s extraordinary circumstances into account.

“This system has widened the educational attainment gap in Scotland, meaning that poorest pupils have been impacted the worst by the SQA and Scottish Government mismanagement.

“The result is that there are many young people, particularly in our poorest communities, who have not achieved the grades they had hoped, or deserved. 

“The Government should implement a ‘re-sit guarantee’ without delay, and offer a further education place to any young person impacted by the disruption of the pandemic who wishes to re-take their subjects.”

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “This is a strong set of results, achieved under extraordinary circumstances.

“It’s been one of the toughest academic years we’ve ever known, with the pandemic throwing significant challenges at our young people. So to have this many learners receiving certificates and for the number of passes at Higher and Advanced Higher to be so high is incredible.

“These results are testament to the hard work, resilience and determination of learners – and to the dedication of their endlessly supportive teachers and lecturers, who have been with them every step of the way, going above and beyond to make sure pupils got the grades they deserve.

“Learners can be confident that their awards are fair, consistent and credible. Indeed, industry representatives have made it clear how much they value this year’s qualifications.”

Somerville said the results highlighted “some areas for us to focus attention on.”

She added: “Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and ensuring every young person has the chance to fulfil their potential remains central to our work. We know that the challenges presented by the pandemic mean our efforts to deliver equity in education are more vital than ever, so we are investing a further £1 billion over the course of this parliament to help close the gap.”

Fiona Robertson, the SQA’s Chief Executive and Scotland’s Chief Examining Officer, said: "This has been a very challenging year for everyone and today is a results day like no other. With awarding based on teacher and lecturer judgement this year, learners have known their results since the end of June.

"However, as envelopes, text messages and emails arrive from SQA this morning, it is a time to celebrate the achievements of learners right across Scotland. Today, almost 137,000 learners have received SQA certificates, the largest since 2017 and we report on a strong set of results.

"The whole Scottish education system, including learners, parents and carers, has worked together to develop and deliver an Alternative Certification Model that makes sure that learners have received the qualifications they deserve, and can move on to further or higher education, training or employment, with confidence.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Henry McLeish: 'Yes, I would support independence'

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