“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.