It’s just not fair

“It’s not fair. I know.”

These are the words I used time and again today as I listened to intelligent and hard-working pupils tell me they knew they would have done so much better in an exam. At least I could provide some consolation: their teachers agreed.  

Earlier this summer our teachers spent hours scrutinising a broad range of evidence to reach estimated grades for every pupil.  They painstakingly analysed prelims, assessments, homework, check tests, class work, essays, reports and projects.  They spent time with subject colleagues discussing and comparing views, cross-checking and moderating estimate decisions to ensure they were being as fair as possible to every single candidate.  If Mrs White thought Jonny deserved an A1 then she’d better be able to prove it to Mr Green and Mrs Mustard.  If we had no evidence whatsoever suggesting that Danny would pass then we recommended that he didn’t.  We worked rapidly and intensely, day and night, at the same time we were moving our entire school online and teaching in completely new and challenging ways.  We were honest.  We acted with the integrity the public should expect from our profession.     

We might as well have not bothered. Teacher estimates have been adjusted – the overwhelming majority in a downward direction – to suit the average attainment profiles of schools and subjects over the last three years. This is the travesty. No matter how hard a pupil worked, no matter the strength of evidence available, no matter how diligently your teacher considered it or how robust the moderation process in your school: if the kids a few years older than you didn’t do well, then you didn’t either. The SQA might have posted results to individual young people today, but they awarded results to schools and communities to suit historical patterns.

Stronger cohort this year?  Doesn’t matter.  More settled staffing in a particular subject?  Who cares.  All that work you’ve been doing on raising attainment?  Oh well, it wouldn’t really have made a difference.  The SQA’s refusal to engage in any dialogue whatsoever with centres meant there was no opportunity for schools to provide commentary or explanation about potential changes in attainment patterns or discuss reasons why achievement in a particular subject may have gone up or down this year.  

Scotland has enjoyed immense political and professional consensus around education for the last decade. Everyone – politicians, school leaders, local authorities, teachers, our unions, civil servants, parents, pupils and partners – everyone is committed to the shared goal of raising attainment.  It is astonishing that our qualifications body would implement such a contrived and artificial process to limit it.    

That 25% of professional judgments were ignored should be a cause for alarm.  I cannot imagine this ever being the case with any other profession.  What would happen if a publicly funded national body issued a press release saying that 25% of doctors in Scotland routinely get it wrong?  Can we imagine a quarter of court convictions being overturned because a statistical model suggested they should be?  

It has been impossible to analyse the SQA’s approach to grade adjustment because it was kept secret until today but it is already becoming clear that the down-grading will have a disproportionate effect in a number of circumstances. If you go to school in a leafy suburb there is more chance that your teacher’s judgment was respected than if you go to a more comprehensive one. If your teacher thought you deserved a C or D-level pass there is a greater chance that the SQA thought they were wrong than if they had said you were heading for a B. I have avoided specific examples to protect confidentiality but know of several cases where every child entered for a C was downgraded to D.

It is entirely appropriate that some form of moderation or checking should be applied but this is not it.  For me, the worst thing is that there appears to have been no consideration of the impact of this approach on individual pupils.  I spoke to several pupils today whose results had been downgraded from their teachers’ estimates in as many as three or four subjects.  It is simply not the case that all of these teachers got it wrong.  

But today’s ‘results’ – I am going to stop calling them results – today’s figures were never about individual pupils; they are self-serving.  These engineered figures can be used to present an increase in the pass rate that is of just the right order to be media-friendly.  They can be used to demonstrate that the attainment gap is closing.  Ultimately, they can be used at future Holyrood committees to demonstrate that we really do need to give kids three years of stressful exams in a row and that our 19th century certification process actually is in fact the perfect culmination to our 21st century curriculum.  See? We need exams.  SQA, good. Teachers, bad.

Our pupils return to school next week and, like all of my colleagues, I can’t wait to see them. But instead of focussing completely on welcoming them back and making up for lost time, a disproportionate amount of teacher effort will now be spent preparing appeals and compiling folders of evidence to support these. These will be uplifted by the SQA who will engage short-term contracts with a special group of people who are qualified to assess this evidence and decide whether appeals should be awarded. But who are this elite group? Teachers, of course! The same people whose judgment was ignored today.

There is a moral imperative on schools to ensure that every single result that was adjusted is considered for an appeal. It is highly likely that the SQA will receive an unmanageable number of appeals and perhaps even a small number of legal challenges from those parents who can afford to pursue this route.

There is still time for the SQA to correct this injustice. I look forward to seeing the statement tomorrow that we trust teachers and updated certificates are in the post.

I’m still relatively new to blogging and was really unsure whether to post this.  But, on reflection, it is my job to post this.  I owe it to my pupils to demand that their efforts are recognised, to my colleagues to demand that their professional judgment is respected, and to myself to call out an injustice when I see it.   

At the outset of this process Scotland’s young people were promised they would not be disadvantaged.  The reality is that several thousand of them have been.  

Quite simply, it’s not fair. 

31 thoughts on “It’s just not fair

  1. This is reasoned, passionate and professional. It is also coming from a sincere advocacy for our pupils and not wishful thinking. It has the ideology and clarity the process was sadly lacking.

    Well said sir. Well said.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more Graeme. What has happened today has been an appalling travesty to all hard working pupils and every teacher involved in supporting them and organising their work for the SQA board. The outcome of the ‘figures’ as you so rightly call them, has not just been a slap in the face, but a full force punch to all of those who have worked painstakingly hard to achieve results to benefit their future. My family lives in and my 17 year old son attends a school in a low SIMD area. Why should these children be less capable of achieving high end results like their peers in more affluent areas? Oh I forgot, it’s the attainment/poverty gap isn’t it? Well all the more reason to ensure equity across the board. If the hard work and efforts been made, then the rewards and recognition should be given. Hats off to all the incredible, hard working secondary teachers like yourself who will now have another extra to your workload. I support every pupil appealing their ‘figures’ if they have been unfairly downgraded, as I know all their teachers will too. The SQA need to be held accountable for the damage they have caused and our FM and DFM must ensure an enquiry is held to rectify the wrongs that have clearly been done.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more. My child was one of those I suspect disadvantaged by previous years not doing well, all his plans and dreams taken away in one letter that he had no control over. My best friend is a teacher and I feel really disappointed that her years of professional judgement have not been taken in to consideration along with so many other teachers. I agree. It’s just not fair !

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  4. The thing is Greame, this is a blatant attempt to socially engineer perceptions of improvement in closing the attainment gap. Its also patently a failure.
    There are areas of great aspiration that very many share, especially the desire, nae, essential break with Westminster and the class-ridden Feudal driven system of lock-tight circular priveledge. However, this SNP led government have painted success in Education and Law and other areas which have been anything but.
    There may be fundamental issues at play with our Governments wholesale strategy to dealing with the ubiquitously stubborn historical attainment gap but, that greater democratic change of independence and control of our economic mechanisms would solve that within a generation with the will to do it. This massaging figures to prevent increased national pass rates is a vain attempt to head off criticism that schools are suddenly doing better than their history suggests. I see too the level of effort thats been asked of staff not just now but over time since Ms Sturgeon announced shed be happy to be judged on Education.
    I will not do Tory bidding here but the light of truth will not reveal kindly on previous ministers tampering with the previous system of education through Standard Grades to Higher which only needed adjustments rather than destruction in a wave of the emperors new clothes.
    Where does this denial of greater effort in this trying time by SQA leave all those young people fed diets o Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset now? It says, we dont care about your hard work, we care about avoiding criticism.
    This resultant approach doesnt suit anyone and invites greater criticism of the supposed trust The Government and the SQA have in staff judgements of pupil progress.
    This demonstrates that both the Government, including Ms Sturgeon and the chief Gerimanderers at SQA have as fixed a mindset over style instead of substance that it is possible to have.
    Indeed the increase of the mechanism for appeal is an admission to Working Class kids in their ditricts that they knew the judgements of levels are flawed and questionable.
    The farce of widespread appeals, taking up even more scholastic precious time will now begin. Thanks SQA.

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  5. My daughter has shared on FB. So will I be sharing. We need to support our students who have been ill done by and encourage them to appeal with the support and professionally woded blog from Graeme. I am not a blogger and new to FB. So thank you again Graeme.

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  6. Thanks for posting. This travesty, unless corrected in some way, could affect many individual pupils’ next step from school and consequently significantly impact their whole life path. What options are there? Unfortunately I suggest SQA are unlikely to grant all appeals. Can it at worst provide certificates with both predicted grades and awarded “figure” so colleges/ universities/employers are able to offer pupils entry to their courses/apprenticeships on the basis of their predicted grades? Probably not. And/or can schools give pupils such a certificate? Again many head teachers are likely to say no. What of universities, colleges adjusting their entry requirements? What are the chances? Parents taking a court route is unlikely to help those pupils who need the correct grades this year to follow their ambitions, career paths. I feel so angry on behalf of those pupils.

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  7. Always thought EXAMS should be abolished,and children should be appraised throughout their annual work.,instead of a one off exam

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    1. I totally agree with you. Continual assessments is they way to go for school kids, just like they do in many college’s.
      Class tests at the end of each topic.

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  8. How disheartening for all especially the young people who have managed to navigate through horrible circumstances- their mental health will be falling more after an expectation- also feel it’s another kick in the teeth for the teachers professional judgement- well said Graeme !!

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  9. Yes it’s absolutely appalling that the SQA has been able to assess these children’s results based on previous years results for the schools and that teachers assessment of individuals attainment potential has been completely ignored. It is indeed a travesty and is likely to affect the most dedicated pupils who have already had to suffer the blow of not being able to put all the hard work they have put in into attaining their much sought after attainments for their future. The provision should have been made for the exams to have been taken. It’s not rocket science and this must be corrected at the highest level.

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  10. With a son who has so obviously “fallen foul” of this statistical adjustment, I was at pains to get him to look at the bigger picture. The reasoning presented by Ms Sturgeon and Mr Sweeney, was in my opinion valid and even although it could clearly be argued, unfair, he had the right of appeal and my opinion was that he should have confidence in the appeal system to sort this out for him.

    This blog was passed onto me via my wife’s cousin. A secondary school teacher whose dedication and love of the job and for her pupils is worn firmly on her sleeve.

    Thanks for writing and publishing this blog. You and the general population of the teaching fraternity have always had my full support, but you now have my sympathy and I will be watching with added interest the developments around the downgradings implemented by the SQA.

    PS. My son has spoken with his deputy head and has been advised that his appeal is to be fully supported by his teachers and his school as a whole.
    Keep fighting the good fight and keep writing and publishing.

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  11. I feel for both teachers and pupils in this rather strange judgement from the SQA. Not to questioned and insulted the judgement of teachers is unfounded. Good for you Graeme for voicing your views.

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  12. Graeme thank you for your effort in writing this very clear thinking & reasoned argument against the recent results sent to our young people by the SQA. & I agree wholeheartedly with all you say but “It’s not fair “ is only part of the truth . It is in my opinion a gross social injustice. We are told the appeal process will be free & you have pointed out why this is not so . I would also point out that this process is being asked of families at a time when so many of our population are emotionally &physically exhausted worrying about employment or homelessness . We have been proud of our governments steady protective measures throughout the Covid crisis & now I agree they need to take quick direct action to re issue a new set of fair corrected results or risk demotivating our young people our teachers & losing the trust of many of the population to protect what ? I am not sure as all those students from abroad won’t be filling our universities anytime soon . In closing I would remind us all that this could all happen again next year as this virus isn’t done with us yet .

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  13. Thank you for posting this, I cannot tell you how disappointed my daughter was getting her results after the teachers advised her to take a subject again in 6th year that she wasn’t going to take but had just missed out on an “A” in 5th year and also do advanced biology in 6th year because she was capable of it. In receiving her results she had been given a”D” for both subjects. What is going on with this system

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  14. I could not agree more. I think the step is Education councillors for the individual councils – get them to push back. I have also signed the petition which is kicking about – if all else fails a legal action

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  15. Graeme, this is a wonderful blog which clearly summarises the terrible position we all find ourselves in-that is pupils, parents and teachers. As a teacher and parent to child affected by these unforgivable decisions I am appalled at SQA. I recall clearly the promise to young people that they would not be disadvantaged. SQA along with those in higher places who sanctioned theses decisions should be held accountable.

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  16. Great post, impassioned and well argued. So please take this question as a genuine inquiry from someone who’s broadly in agreement with your views but who doesn’t understand enough of the detail… What would the overall results have been if unadjusted? If nearly 1/4 of the results were adjusted downwards, surely the unadjusted results would have been so hugely improved on previous years that the narrative now would be that this year’s results were meaningless because teachers had artificially inflated them. So adjustment surely had to be done. The question then is whether this was the best way of doing it. And I have no idea… If this method wasn’t fair, which it may well not have been, what would have been a fairer alternative?

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  17. Our children are all indeviduals in Thier own right not pawns in a game to satisfy statistics the damage which has been done through the last four months is bad enough but to now be demoralised in this way is unforgivable and not only on the pupils. but on the teachers who have given of themselves to have all Thier hard work dismissed this is going to have a detremtal effect on them and anyone thinking of going into teaching l think this whole SQA debacle is an utter disgrace and the government has not shown themselves in a good light at all

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  18. I agree with every word of this blog. I wonder if you might consider expanding your thinking to see it, not as a single exercise but as merely the latest exercise in central control of Education.
    Girfec, CfE, Reducing the Attainment Gap are all actually valuable concepts but all are used by the powers that be to overload us with work, to create an appearance of benign action and to centralise control of education. It was ever thus, sadly. I am 57. Been in this game a long time.

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  19. My daughter overall did very well, mainly in line with her predicted grades and in line with her hard work all the way through primary school and her 4 years in High School. However, she was predicted an A as far back as October, but awarded a B for Biology despite the fact her prelim result in November was above 70%. She was so upset and was unable to take on board the other good results. She knows achieving 5 A’s and 2 B’s at National 5 level are overall great results but this grade did not make sense to her. I was led to believe that no child would be disadvantaged as a result of this ongoing pandemic. What a joke. My child feels completely let down by the SQA and frankly I feel disgusted learning the SQA downgraded so many predicted grades after professional teachers spent hours and hours reviewing evidence to back up their predictions. What about how many children vastly improve their grades after sitting their prelims ??? If this had been my eldest daughter going through this goodness knows where she’d be now as she unfortunately failed many of her Higher prelims but after working very hard for months afterwards, she deservedly achieved all her Highers securing her University place. Her path would have been very different. How dare the SQA make this decision. Is is not a great thing that the attainment levels are rising ? Isn’t that what our children, our teachers and us parents have been working on over the past few years. SQA you have got this so wrong and have a duty to right this wrong immediately or have on your hands our children’s mental health deteriorating. You clearly have no idea what our children have had to deal with since schools closed, no idea of the many hours I and I’m sure many other parents spent providing emotional support during lockdown to our worried, confused children.
    My daughter has requested an appeal. Please everyone do the same. I and my daughter look forward to receiving your apology SQA as well as my daughters predicted grade awarded promptly.
    Thank you so much for writing this blog.

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  20. Wow, this is incredibly well written insight. These are so many of the words I was looking for today and probably yesterday.

    Well done

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  21. Graeme, my response to you on this is short & simple, but think its an important one to leave ..
    Thank you !!!
    SQA have invalidated grades & undermined the teaching community for the sake of stats, and now we get to foot the bill as they handle all the appeals that should never have been necessary – farce & the longer anyone tries to justify it, the quicker I lose any respect I may have had for them

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  22. Thanks for this Graeme as it makes interesting reading. I would like to ask why you’ve said “ if your children come from the leafier suburbs there’s more chance their teachers’ estimates will be respected than if they came from a comprehensive one”. What evidence is there that this is the case as surely the results aren’t published comparing schools in different social strata?

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  23. I won’t forget the look on my daughter’s face as she slumped down and said” I got a B for biology.” A year of hard work studying 5 highers and one advanced higher, in order to follow her dream only to be let down by someone who has never met her. Predicted all A grades we had no doubt she would manage! Comments of you can resit,and, but you are doing advanced higher next year that will be bettet are not helpful when you need to get an A for the higher first time to even apply for vet school. So because of our postcode my daughter who has put her heart and soul into her dream, done a summer school last year in the wildlife park, 200 hours voluntary work AND spent valuable time doing work experience will not be able to follow her dream that she has worked so hard to achieve!

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  24. Martinaitch
    Like Colin above I cannot see how the SQA could have accepted teacher’s estimates and thereby inflated national results by 25%.
    The SQA should not have issued a full certificate at this stage. Instead they should have issued a certificate for those subjects and grades where they agreed with teacher’s estimates and noted that the rest would be dealt with through an extended appeals system. They should have issued a press release well in advance explaining how this system would operate.
    The Scottish government are to blame for allowing this fiasco to develop.

    Like

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