Scottish Examination Results: Professors in Glasgow and Oxford Call for Change

Exam tab on a keyboard

By Professor Louise Hayward, School of Education, University of Glasgow, and Professor Jo-Anne Baird, University of Oxford

We are not living in normal times.  In common with many countries around the world, Scotland has had to cancel their examinations and to rely on teacher judgment. The young people and their teachers who have worked so hard and who have achieved so much in such difficult circumstances are to be applauded. 

It may not be popular to say this just now but the pressures such sudden changes have put on examination boards and the many teachers who work with SQA also has to be recognised.  They have had to generate, trial and test then implement a new system in a matter of months when normally such changes take many years.

It is little surprise that the results are causing so much controversy. These results are high stakes. Future opportunities, for example access to particular university or college courses or to employment are limited and the qualification results represent the way that Scotland chooses to open doors to these opportunities. 

‘Flexible’ education system

It may not be much comfort to this year’s young people but for previous generations the stakes were even higher. Not performing well in examinations meant that doors closed.  The education system in Scotland is now much more flexible and offers alternative routes such as the wide range of opportunities offered by Scotland’s colleges. 

However, every year in Scotland the examination results prove contentious.  If the results improve, standards must be falling; if the results decline, the education system is failing.  Rarely is either true. However, any approach to assessment where the implications are so significant for individuals and their families should, and does, come under significant scrutiny. 

The nature of any system that seeks to ration opportunities will always lead to a situation where some are delighted and others disappointed.  That happened last year and it is happening this year.

Challenges of teacher assessment

Teacher assessment has much to commend it – the teacher is able to gather evidence about more of the curriculum, knows the young person, is able to collect evidence over time rather than a single snapshot.  Yet, particularly when the stakes are high, teacher assessment also faces challenges.   Having teacher judgements be consistent, not only within a school, but across every school in the country is a major challenge for countries internationally.  For the system to be fair, teacher judgements need to be consistent nationally. 

The moderation of teachers’ professional judgments is part of any quality assurance process to ensure parity. Research on teachers’ estimates indicated that without moderation, this year’s results might not only have been inconsistent, they might have been far too generous. Work undertaken by Cambridge Assessment argued that approximately 45% of teachers’ estimates were consistent with national standards.  In that context, the evidence from the recent SQA reports indicating that 75% of teacher estimates remained unchanged presents a very positive picture for the Professional Judgement of Scottish Teachers.  

If the perception had emerged that this was the year when results were inflated the consequences of that for this year’s young people could have been very damaging.

A complex business

Making sure that assessment systems are fair is a complex business.  There is also research evidence to point to differences in teacher judgement that relate to gender, class and ability. It is crucial that due attention is paid to those to ensure that young people are treated fairly.

And that is where much of the current controversy lies.  Were young people attending schools in areas of disadvantage further disadvantaged by a system that used historical data from schools as part of the process of moderation?  No method of assessment is perfect. External examinations suit some young people who thrive on the pressure – others find the pressure unbearable and struggle to cope.  Have an off day on the exam day and your results can vary significantly.  

Crucially, the controversy on the use of historical evidence to contribute to the moderation of this year’s results has not yet focused on the fact that the historical evidence was created from the results of examinations. 

The examination system consistently reflected a pattern of achievement where young people in schools in areas of disadvantage performed less strongly than young people in more affluent areas.  Suggesting that this year’s system should address Scotland’s long-term societal problems is a big ask.  What is clear from the historical examination evidence is that our examination system has largely maintained the status quo and improvements to narrowing the poverty related attainment gap have been slow. The evidence from this year is that the gap once again is narrowing slowly but if we want more than this slow progress, we need to take a more radical look at the senior phase in Scottish schools.

Not the ‘Golden Age’

There is a danger that we begin to look at our previous examination system as the Golden Age. Yet, examinations are limited in what they can measure and commonly internationally lead to narrowing of the curriculum and limited approaches to learning and teaching.  Significant amounts of time in 4th, 5th and 6th years are spent rehearsing for examinations and can become little more than past papers, prelims and endless tests leaving young people dissatisfied and disinterested. 

The examinations become an end in themselves and learning only matters if it is in the examination.

Learning in the 21st century demands more than that. What matters for young people in future depends as much on their ability to collaborate, to be creative, to add value to society as it does on their ability to solve a quadratic equation. 

It is not a question of either/or.  Both matter. Our qualifications system needs to change to respond to what matters for our future citizens. Teacher professional judgement must play a crucial role in that new system.

More open appeal process

This year, as in previous years, some young people have not received the results they so hoped for.  Recognising that the system has had to change more quickly than might have been desired to respond to COVID 19, the SQA is offering a more open appeal process than has been the case in previous years.  This is just. The appeal process offers a space where evidence related to each individual case can be reconsidered and decisions reviewed. 

Where further evidence points to the need to change a grade, changes will be made. SQA should and has committed to do this.

However, as in previous years, even after appeal some young people will remain disappointed. That is the nature of a system where future opportunities are competitive because they are limited in number. Public confidence in the qualification system is crucially important to this year’s pupils. As a nation, we owe it to our young people to value their efforts and their achievements and not to seek to ask more of this year’s qualification system than we have asked of the system in previous years.  To do so would put at risk the credibility of the awards of the very young people we seek to support.

But we should see this year as a turning point and should look to new and better ways to recognise our young people’s achievements.

Professors Louise Hayward and Jo-Anne Baird are both professors of education and do not speak on behalf of their organisations, NSEE nor the Scottish Qualifications Agency.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 6 August 2020.  

Picture credit: Alpha Stock Images, licensed under the Creative Commons 3 License. 




We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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