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by Andrew Learmonth
10 June 2021
First Minister pressed on 'sleekit' use of school's past performance in grade awards

First Minister pressed on 'sleekit' use of school's past performance in grade awards

Nicola Sturgeon has denied claims that a school’s past performance could impact a national or higher pupil's grades.  

For the second week in a row, the First Minister was pushed on the government’s handling of the 2021 qualifications.  

It comes after Education Scotland revealed earlier this week that councils had developed tools to compare schools performance to previous years, allowing “unexpected” results to be highlighted.

There was fury last year when an algorithm led moderation scheme used by the SQA saw the exams body vet grades awarded to pupils by teachers. 

In total, of the 133,000 entries adjusted by the SQA, 93.1% were adjusted down, and kids at schools in poorer parts of Scotland were twice as likely to have been penalised by the process as their affluent peers.

The system was ultimately scrapped, with Nicola Sturgeon apologising to the young people affected.

Last week, the new Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville told MSPs that this year, pupils’ grades “will be based not on historical data or use of an algorithm”.

She told Holyrood that teachers’ professional judgements “alone” would decide young people’s grades.

But during First Minister’s Questions, the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross pointed to the Education Scotland document, and reports compiled by councils which said historic data is being used to “make adjustments” to this year’s data.

He said: “Once again young people will lose out based solely on where they go to school. This is the same shambles as last year, it is 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. How on earth can young people have confidence in the system when the First Minister’s words don’t match reality?”

Sturgeon said the Tory leader had misrepresented what the system would do. She said the historic data would be used as a “quality assurance” method to check grades.

“This year's national qualifications awards are based on teacher judgement and that teacher judgement is evidenced by the attainment of pupils, not by past results, or by algorithms. 

“No learner's grades will be marked down or up because of their school’s past performance. If any learner has demonstrated that, for example, they deserve an A grade, then an A grade is what they will receive. 

“There are quality assurance processes in place… but neither the SQA or Education Scotland are involved in these processes. Once provisional grades are submitted to the SQ, they will not be changed because of any school's past performance.”

This was, she added, “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 pupils.”

The First Minister added: “If the teacher’s judgement is that they stand behind the result they gave, that result stands, it is not changed. So it's simply a checking procedure but it ends in the same place where it is the teacher’s judgement based on the attainment of the pupil that determines the grade.”

In his questions, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar pushed the First Minister on the lack of a provision for extenuating circumstances as part of the appeals process, raising concerns from the Children’s Commissioner that the process may not be human rights compliant.

He said: “This SQA crisis has all the hallmarks of last year’s crisis. The use of historical data in moderation, a non-functioning appeals process, and a government refusing to listen and engage.

"Young people across Scotland have had the hardest year of their lives. You have had a year to develop a system that worked, but there are now just days to improve the flawed process.

"Will the First Minister now finally listen to Scotland’s young people and introduce a no detriment appeals policy and make personal circumstance part of the appeals criteria, or will young people be forced to take to the streets again this year to force her to change her mind?”

Responding, Sturgeon said the Scottish Government will “continue to listen” to concerns and said “difficult judgements” have been made.

She said: “These are all really important points but describing an appeals system that hasn’t even started yet as non-functioning I don’t think helps with the delivery of a system and the proper discussion of some of these issues.

"There is no algorithm that is determining young people’s results and I don’t think it is fair to young people to create the impression that there is.

"This is a system based on teacher judgement, that is correct, the appeals system is open to all, free of charge.

"We will continue to listen, we will continue to look at all the detail of this and we will strive to make sure that every young person gets the service from the education system and the exam system that they deserve.”

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