Report reveals Fife schools worst hit by downgraded exam results chaos

Deprived areas bore brunt of SQA decision

Students stage protest over exam downgrading in Glasgow (Pic: John Devlin)
Students stage protest over exam downgrading in Glasgow (Pic: John Devlin)

Pupils from the poorest backgrounds in Fife would have felt the worst effects of the controversial bid to downgrade exam results, a report has revealed.

The SQA’s decision sparked a major backlash, and a U-turn.

John Swinney, Education Secretary, announced all downgraded exam grades would be withdrawn.

Picture ; John Devlin

A review into the controversial issue presented to Fife Council’s policy and co-ordination committee revealed the biggest losers as a greater proportion of awards with a reduced grade went to pupils from the most deprived areas of the region.

The report compared the initial results from the SQA’s 'moderation approach' with the final results from teacher estimates.

For Highers, 37.5% of awards received by Fife pupils from the most deprived backgrounds were reduced..

In comparison, 26.4% from the least deprived backgrounds received similar downgrading.

Overall, the pass rates for the most deprived areas in Fife improved by a greater margin than the pass rates for less deprived in the final results from teacher estimates.

Levenmouth Academy had the the largest percentage of reduced grades in the region with 37.8% of all grades reduced in initial SQA results.

Schools which showed grade reductions of over 30% included Kirkcaldy High School, Levenmouth Academy, Queen Anne High School High School, Auchmuty High School, Glenwood High School and Lochgelly High School.

Four of these - Levenmout, Lochgelly, Glenwood and Kirkcaldy - have free school meals uptakes above 20%.

The report, by Carrie Lindsay executive director of education and children's service, said: "There appears to be some correlation between the proportion of grades reduced and social context.

"However, the reduction of grades resulting from the SQA moderation methodology is varied between schools and within subjects at school level."

The SQA's initial results were based on three-year trend data for each subject in each school and its overall performance in relation to number of A, B and C grades over that timespan.

The report noted the SQA included these factors 'to ensure national standards and systems were fair and credible.'

However, the data revealed that basing grades on these factors severely impacted those from lower income backgrounds in, what many have claimed, is an 'unfair' and 'classist' system.

Councillor James Calder, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson said: “For a Government that professes to reduce the attainment gap between the best and worst off pupils, it seems as though this was a significant oversight by the SNP.

"It amazes me that its formula for the exam results was not analysed for the effect it would have for those from the most deprived backgrounds.

“While pupils from all backgrounds had their grades reduced in Fife, the poorest were the worst affected.

“With Higher results being important for many in deciding their future after school, it was essential this was done correctly. I am glad the Scottish Government made its u-turn after pressure from pupils affected, but it should never have got to this level.”

Cllr Fay Sinclair, SNP convener of education and children's services said: "I was pleased that the committee recognised the significant achievements of Fife pupils and staff this year.

"We have seen a rise in both the number and quality of passes, as well as a closing of the poverty-related attainment gap and I think it is really important that this cohort is able to celebrate that success."

"Going forward, there are questions to be asked about how our education system, and in particular the use of exams, can provide an accurate measure of what all young people are capable of and I hope that experiences here in Fife can be fed into the national work being done in this area."

Councillor Altany Craik (Lab) said: : "The SQA should be embarassed by the cock up they've made of this."

The report also noted the council was not able to fully understand how the SQA applied its methodology.

Education officer Stewart Booker noted that the 'black box' approach from the SQA limited the educational officers understanding of the independent body's marking process.

Cllr Sinclair and fellow SNP councillor, John Beare, raised concerns about consistency and robustness across schools in Fife in their submission of grades to the SQA.

Cllr Craik noted that these comments from SNP councillors "sound as if the schools did not apply the rigour properly."

He added "I was disappointed in their slightly sideways statement that it might just be the school didn't apply it properly. I don't think that's the case and it's unfair to say so - you're impugning their professional integrity and that's not good enough."

Cllr Sinclair responded: "We're asking about consistency and robustness of the process. It was simply a question and certainly not an attack on teachers and schools."

The SQA stated it would not comment on particular local council reports on the SQA results.

However, a spokesperson said: "We are following deputy First minister's directive to award all candidates on teacher estimates."

The council unanimously agreed on the report and noted that a Short Life Working Group (SLWG) will consider any processes and procedures required to respond to any future awarding issues arising because of the continuing pandemic.

The report will be submitted to the education and children’s services committee following the publication of final leavers’ attainment outcomes and destinations in February 2021.

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