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John Swinney does not deserve this media hounding

Adam Losekoot

It’s been an interesting week for John Swinney to say the least. The backlash over the SQA results was fierce and despite the efforts he has gone to in order to rectify the situation for the thousands of angry pupils and parents across the country, the tenability of his position in the cabinet was uncertain until recently. If this week’s FMQs are anything to go by, the opposition parties are still out for blood. Swinney faced a motion of no confidence on Thursday and survived thanks in no small part to the support of the Scottish Greens. Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson had been calling for such a motion since the beginning of the fiasco and his counterpart on the Tory benches had also voiced his support for such a motion prior to the solution offered by Swinney on Tuesday. The Scottish Labour Leader, Richard Leonard, is still calling for Swinney to be removed from his position, citing the First Minister’s mauling of the then Education Minister in 2000 as reason for Swinney to get the boot.

Strangely enough for such a circumstance, Swinney has faced this through little fault of his own. He is being hauled over the coals by the rags which substitute for newspapers in this country over the model used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (an independent body overseen by a board of directors) about how to award exam grades. Though Swinney and his colleagues ultimately approved the method the SQA devised, even that wasn’t as severe a crime as we’ve all been led to believe. You’ve likely seen the headlines; ‘wee jimmy got a C in art but look at the pretty picture he drew’, ‘Mary got a D in English but look, she managed to write a whole letter to the education minister - there’s punctuation and everything’. The Scottish Government have decided to absolve the SQA of any blame for the situation and have stuck their necks on the line instead. Stating that their focus was on ensuring grades for this year remained legitimate and comparable to previous years.

No part of this media driven firestorm was ever necessary. Neither Swinney nor the SQA had done any wrong. In fact, the system which was put in place this year was robust and fair enough to have resulted in the vast majority of students getting the grades they deserved. The media circus we have seen since the results were announced has therefore been nothing but a fabrication. It appears to be little more than ‘SNP-baddery’ from a bunch of papers with which I wouldn’t see fit to wipe my arse if the only other option was a stingy nettle. The single most important point in all of this is that the grades had not been finalised yet. Far be it for me to tell whoever Labour have dug up to rant about whether or not Scottish children can spell how to do his job, but it would appear that he is unaware of a major factor in all of this.

The method put in place by the SQA asked teachers to submit estimates of grades for each of their pupils. The SQA then put together a system which uses these estimates from teachers and then compares them to a running average for each school over the last few years. If there happens to be a 15 point difference between the two, then you would expect the SQA to adjust the submitted grades to fit with the running average, right? Funnily enough, that is exactly what happened. Some schools and teachers horrendously inflated grades, resulting in the attainment gap almost disappearing overnight as some pass rates jumped up to 20% higher than the previous year. For anyone to suggest that every single one of those grades were legitimate, is a sign that perhaps they too need to resit their Higher maths.

The issue we saw last week was not the SQA unfairly punishing students from poorer areas. Unfortunately, Scotland still has a significant poverty-related attainment gap (a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless), therefore the statistical modelling (which was the first part of this process) took that into account. More affluent areas tend to have higher exam results than less affluent areas, so when results had to be adjusted from some teachers falsely inflating their pupils’ grades it makes sense that the running average for these areas was different – thus requiring different levels of adjustment. The simple fact is that Scotland suffers a significant poverty-related attainment gap, and if the Scottish Government were to decide to ignore the truth of the matter and try to sweep that under the carpet by allowing inflated grades to be approved without moderation then that would be a shocking example of poor governance and worthy of more significant condemnation than even the current issue.

As you can see from the figure above (SQA ACM: Equality Impact Assessment, 2020), the adjustments made by the SQA seem very reasonable. The results for the 2019-2020 year group had to fit the trends of the last few years if they were to be considered legitimate. If the SQA was to simply use the teacher estimates as the Scottish Greens, Labour and Tories have been clamouring for, the results would be absurdly high. This would invalidate the qualifications the 2020 cohort has received. Instead the SQA adjusted pass rates to ensure that these qualifications would retain the same value to employers and further education institutions that they have in previous years. Additionally, pass rates had still increased by up to 5% on the previous year even with statistical moderation so this cohort were still on course to receive a strong set of results.

In the graph above, the blue represents the results post-moderation. The red represents the teacher estimates (which are now the official rates).

Furthermore, there was to be another step in this process. A vitally important step which would have set right the instances wherein a pupil was downgraded unfairly. A free appeals process (as opposed to the previously non-existent appeals process) was in place for teachers to submit evidence to support their estimate. This evidence would be viewed and considered on its own merit – removed from anything to do with a pupil’s postcode. This would be an opportunity for teachers to submit any evidence they felt relevant to defend their estimate of a pupil’s grade. The evidence provided would have been considered in isolation (to borrow a phrase we’ve all gotten far more used to than we expected) from anything else. No statistical modelling would have come into play, nothing but their work would have been considered. Suffice to say, most pundits either failed to notice this or left it out of their comments.

The Education Minister made a statement on Tuesday in which he apologised to students for the proposed system, and announced that any pupil who had been downgraded from their teacher estimate would have their grade returned to that estimate. Any pupil who has had their grade increased from the teacher estimate will retain the new grade. The Scottish Government have done what pupils and parents wanted them to do and have also agreed to the demands of the opposition parties.

It is no secret that the SNP have a mixed record on education; from the rollout of Curriculum for Excellence (albeit a policy devised by Labour and left to the SNP to roll out) to the very limited progress which has been made in closing both the gender and poverty related attainment gaps. While pass rates have been increasing over the last few years and the number of young people attending University or college from areas with a high SIMD rating has been increasing, this has been marred by varying levels of success in the PISA education rankings. The 2018 report shows a welcome improvement on 2016’s report, placing Scottish pupils “above the OECD average” for reading and “similar to the OECD average” for maths and science. There is evidently still much progress to be made, particularly with reference to the attainment gap; but largely the current Scottish government has had a profoundly vanilla record. In many instances a step forward is accompanied elsewhere with a step back and vice versa.

At this point we should also bring attention to the fact that the decisions which had been reached by ministers and the SQA in Scotland are very similar to those which the Conservative government in London and the Labour government in Cardiff have come to. Therefore, it is to be expected that all three governments will face equal scrutiny? I’m not convinced. Suffice to say, no one has suggested any alternative methods of assessment. The simple fact of the matter is that the SQA are competent. They are independent from the government and their only focus is on fairly judging the abilities of Scottish pupils. They are not partisan as some papers appear to be suggesting. If your grievance is with the Scottish education system in general there are better ways of going about voicing those grievances than shouting and bawling about an issue which has been blown out of proportion.

Swinney’s statement is game changing and not necessarily in a good way. No matter which way you slice it, the SNP have bowed to pressure from pushy parents and ignorant pupils who couldn’t be bothered to educate themselves on how the process was intended to work. However, this is something which the SNP can spin to their advantage with ease. They can highlight the fact that they listened to the wishes of parents and pupils, they held their hands up and apologised for an issue they caused and then set about rectifying it. In doing so they have suddenly gained the support (or at least gone a long way to gaining the support) of parents and young people across Scotland, support that is likely to help them in next year’s election. Already the SNP is set to receive 57% of the vote – this from a Yougov poll which was taken in the midst of this debacle – and that number is only going to rise in the aftermath.

The key issue with using the teacher estimates is that it risks devaluing the grades pupils received. Saying you passed your Highers is less impressive when a potential employer knows those grades may not be robust or reliable, let alone when you are part of a cohort which boasts a Higher pass rate of almost 90%. But the damage this may cause will not have manifested itself by the election next year and when it does the SNP can safely say that this is what the people wanted, and this is what the opposition parties wanted. They will be able to say that they tried to ensure that these qualifications were not devalued but were forced by parents and pupils to renege on that position. It is uncertain how much of this could have been planned ahead of time but it is certain that the SNP can spin this into a win-win situation for themselves, and go a long way towards ensuring another 5 years of governance.

The decision the Scottish government has reached may not be the right one, indeed sticking with the system they had in place would have ensured that grades would have been allocated as robustly and legitimately as could be achieved given the circumstances. Nicola Sturgeon has, however, given a masterclass in courting public opinion and projecting an image of a government which truly listens to the people. It is a feat which would be incredibly difficult to replicate in any circumstances but the First Minister is a shrewd and capable political operator. The pressure is now on the UK and Welsh governments who are facing the same issue, albeit on a considerably greater scale. The UK Government released a statement the night before the English results were released in which they confirmed that there would be no process for students to appeal their grades – less than 24 hours later that position was reversed as Number 10 put out a tweet offering students a confusing set of options for potential alternatives to accepting the grade they were awarded. In England and Wales we have seen approximately 40% (as opposed to roughly 25% in Scotland) of teacher estimates downgraded and, as happened in Scotland, this has predominantly affected pupils from less affluent areas. It is unclear whether they will follow the example of the Scottish Government, as the system put in place for Wales and England was largely similar to that originally being used here in Scotland – except only the SQA put an appeals system in place, if you live down south you’re stuck with the grade you’re given. What remains to be seen is whether Johnson and Drakeford can pull off a similar appeal or whether they will remain stuck with an F.

Image: Ninian Reid via Flickr

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