Contrary to popular belief, I was never someone who found exams easy at school, or even at university. Sure, I was the type of person for whom the motivation to study came naturally, which I know isn’t the same for everyone: you can blame crippling self-doubt and my untreated controlling tendencies since childhood for that. But despite everyone thinking knowledge came to me easily, and that I coasted by for my entire academic career without issue, I’ve always worked damn hard for the grades I’ve gotten. My life since I was 15 has gravitated around exams and deadlines. For me, my academic identity has kind of always been who I am, which is why I’ve worked so hard to meticulously control it since day dot (I’m not saying this is a healthy way to be, but it is the honest truth). Yet, this year teenagers across Scotland have had that ability to control their own future stripped from them. Instead, their futures have been left at the mercy of a heartless formula – one which favours those already advantaged by where they attend school.
In March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) announced the cancellation of all national exams – including National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers, the main forms of qualification in Scottish schools. Instead, they developed and implemented an alternative certification model to award pupils their qualifications "as fairly and reliably as possible". The grades attained for these qualifications were meant to be based mostly on the pupil’s past attainment and teacher predictions. This was already a questionable approach, as many pupils who do badly in their mid-year prelims go on to attain good grades in their final exams. However, the worst, it seems was yet to come. When the SQA announced their full methodology for the grading system, they noted that as well as teacher recommendations, they were also taking the school’s historical attainment into account. They stated they would be adjusting personal recommendations from teachers according to the cold, hard statistics from previous years. Nearly a quarter of teacher recommended results were downgraded, most by a full grade. Of all the grades that were adjusted from teacher’s predictions, only 7% were adjusted upwards.
Some pupils had received consistent A’s in all of their coursework and their prelims, only to open their results to C’s and D’s as it was more consistent with their school’s "past performance" in those subjects. Some teachers reported that for certain classes they had given the lowest predicted grades they had given in years, only for the SQA to go over their heads, look at the results of their past classes and bump those C’s and D’s up to A’s and B’s. Can you guess which of these happened in the quote-on-quote "better" schools versus the disadvantaged ones? To give you a clue: league tables tend to be a very straightforward sliding scale of wealth and privilege. With the rich holding the most consistent good grades, and the poor at the bottom achieving less of those results that look good on paper.
We’ve always known that access to the "best" education is a postcode lottery – schools in wealthier areas get better funding and therefore can afford to have smaller classes and put on more classes in specialist subjects or Advanced Highers (which aren’t the norm at most Scottish schools since so much weight is placed on our Highers). Pupils from wealthier backgrounds at the same schools that can afford to supplement their learning with extracurricular trips and tutors and are seen as "bright” and “hardworking". All the while, their poorer counterparts may be seen as "disruptive" or "lazy", when their home environment means they don’t get the time or space to study to the same extent. Those same pupils can be as intelligent, but might not be able to respond to traditional book learning in the same way because of their upbringing. Yet, even when these teens do "rise to the challenge" in the traditional academic sense, the odds are stacked against them. Covid-19's closing of schools and cancellation of exams has held a magnifying glass up to this divide like never before because for the first time arbitrary exam performance can’t be used to justify the wealth gap in grades. This year, Higher pass rates for the poorest pupils were reduced by 15.2% from the estimated results, whilst pass rates for the richest were reduced by just 6.9%.
The fact of the matter is that whilst Twitter has been up in arms over blatant classism – which this is, there’s simply no denying it – the heart of the issue runs far deeper. What it shows is that the Scottish secondary education system has nothing to fall back on in its grading of pupils than one exam and past precedent. The actual hard work and development of pupils throughout the year has little to no bearing on their results if it doesn’t shine through when they’re anxiously sat in the exam hall on that one crucial date. It goes beneath the facade of year-long, objective-based learning and proves the intense pressure that our education system still places on one paper sat over a couple of hours, not a comprehensive education that spans years. And when that one, solid foundational block of the system is taken away, the whole thing comes crashing down.
The only reason this uproar is happening now is because it’s affecting those “bright” pupils, the ones who were predicted A’s in the first place. But this system has been broken for a long time, it’s already let so many pupils fall through the cracks when they don’t respond to memory-based learning and the intensive pressure of a few hours in an exam hall. In fact, it actively requires some students to do badly in order for others to get the best grades – to quote the SQA’s own guidelines, their primary concern was “maintaining the integrity and credibility of our qualifications system, ensuring that standards are maintained over time”. What that means is that apparently A grades don’t mean anything if too many people are allowed to get them. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you are in relation to everybody else. A lot of us learned the term bell curve for the first time this week – and many pupils learned in the harshest way possible. It’s all a sobering reminder that only a select few are allowed to be the best, at the expense of everyone else.
To be fair to the SQA, there were no procedures in place for them to be able to grade this year’s candidates fairly because the system itself was already bitterly unfair. Their own awarding methodology document admits that in many cases they had little to no information about individual’s prior attainment to go off of when awarding grades. But that just makes their dismissal of teacher recommendations – the ones who know these pupils and their abilities best – all the more insidious. Contrary to their own and the education secretary’s defence of the policy, they have taken an almost entirely statistical approach to the giving of grades. These aren’t numbers, they’re people. People who right now, feel their futures could be in tatters because of this dedication to a Darwinian education system where some have to fail so others can rise.
If I had been getting my Higher results this year, despite my controlling and perfectionist tendencies, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything to control my fate when opening that envelope. Coming from a school consistently placed on the lowest rungs of the league table ladder, I might not have made it into Glasgow University or any university at all for that matter. Yet even now looking back, I was lucky because some pupils have never had that semblance of control over their future. Their abilities have never been judged fairly because they weren’t academic in the traditional sense. In some ways, the disgust this year’s results have precipitated is a good thing because it means the bitter unfairness of it all has been pushed to the forefront. We can’t go back to how things were, not after a scandal like this - and we shouldn’t want to either.