Sturgeon sorry for exams fiasco and admits student outrage a 'bigger problem' than grade inflation

Dan Sanderson
·5-min read
The First Minister visited West Calder High School on Monday, ahead of issuing her apology to students - WPA pool/Getty
The First Minister visited West Calder High School on Monday, ahead of issuing her apology to students - WPA pool/Getty

Nicola Sturgeon has issued an apology to teenagers hit by this year’s results day fiasco and promised to fix the "unfair" system.

After spending much of last week defending the arbitrary downgrading of 124,000 qualifications, under a “moderation” process put in place following the cancellation of this year's exams, the First Minister on Monday confirmed a government u-turn over results.

Opposition parties said the First Minister’s apology did not go far enough, and claimed the reversal was motivated by a desire to keep her under-fire Education Secretary and deputy, John Swinney, in his job.

The furious row over school qualifications threatened to overshadow the reopening of Scottish schools, for the first time in almost five months, from Tuesday. Many are welcoming pupils back on a “phased” basis over the coming days ahead of a full-time return next week.

The EIS, the country’s largest teaching union, said a major survey of almost 30,000 members showed that only one in five were confident that schools are currently safe, with two thirds believing face coverings should be made mandatory among older pupils.

However, on school qualifications, Ms Sturgeon admitted: “We did not get this right and I'm sorry for that.” 

Details of an overhauled system will be unveiled on Tuesday at Holyrood. It is likely that many, if not all, of the 124,000 downgrades will now be reversed. Ms Sturgeon said she had come to the conclusion that the injustice and disillusionment felt by teenagers was a “bigger problem” that the impact widespread grade inflation would have on the credibility of this year’s results.

Teenagers protested at the system on Friday - Andrew Milligan/PA
Teenagers protested at the system on Friday - Andrew Milligan/PA

The u-turn only came after it became apparent that Holyrood’s opposition parties would unite in a no confidence vote against Mr Swinney this week, unless major changes were agreed.

Both the Tories and Labour are maintaining their calls for Mr Swinney to resign or be sacked.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said it was “hypocritical” for the First Minister to apologise after spending days defending a process he described as the biggest scandal seen in Scottish education in decades. 

He said: “A belated and forced apology is not good enough. We need an immediate return to the grades recommended by teachers for those who saw their grades reduced.”

Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said: “It’s shameful that Nicola Sturgeon only apologised to pupils and parents when she realised Mr Swinney’s job was on the line. 

“This isn’t about one issue. John Swinney’s report card is littered by F-grades every year and confidence in his ability to run our schools has evaporated.”

On Friday, teenagers protested against the way they had been treated in Glasgow and there were fears expressed from within the SNP that the party could face a backlash from voters at the Holyrood elections next May.

However, Ms Sturgeon insisted she had changed her mind after spending the weekend reading letters and emails from unhappy teenagers. 

The “moderation” system used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to change grades used a formula that relied heavily on the past performance of a pupils’ school. It resulted in Higher pass rates for pupils in the most deprived areas being reduced by 15.2 per cent in comparison with 6.9 per cent for pupils from the richest backgrounds. 

Ms Sturgeon argued last week that the process was necessary, as if teacher judgements alone had been relied upon to award qualifications, pass rates would have been up significantly on last year meaning the results would not have been seen as credible.

But on Monday, she said: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I'm sorry for that. We will be taking steps to ensure that every young person gets a grade that recognises the work they have done.”

She added: “The thing that most troubled me - and over the weekend my conclusion was we couldn’t let this stand - [is] a young person from the kind of communities I grew up in concluding that it doesn’t matter how hard they work in school, there’s no point because the system is against them. 

“That is a bigger problem than any suggestion that this year’s pass rate is higher than it would have been if they had exams.”

Meanwhile, in the EIS survey, completed by 29,867 teachers, it was found that only one in five expressed confidence that schools are currently safe, while 63 per cent supported  the mandatory wearing of face coverings by senior pupils in classrooms, which is currently not required. A quarter of teachers said they did not support the reopening of schools from today.

Under original plans, pupils would have returned to classes part-time with two metre distancing, but these were torn up following a backlash from parents in another major SNP u-turn on education this summer. Pupils will now not be required to observe distancing while many of the other safety rules in wider society, such as the need to wear face masks in enclosed areas, do not apply in schools or on school buses.

Larry Flanagan, the union’s general secretary, said: “These findings issue a stark warning to local authorities and the Scottish Government ahead of pupils returning to schools from [today]. Our survey findings confirm that, even as they return to schools across the country, Scotland’s teachers are extremely concerned about the risks associated with potential Covid-19 infection in schools.”

More than seven in 10 also said they supported routine coronavirus testing of members of staff, something that is not currently in place.

Ms Sturgeon said that discussions with unions about additional safety measures in schools were ongoing. She added: “While the guidance we have put in place has been very carefully worked through… we will continue to work with and support teachers to feel confident as they go back.”