Meeting date: Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 August 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Coronavirus Acts Report, Examination Results, Covid-19, Business Motion, Decision Time
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Coronavirus Acts Report
- Examination Results
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam results 2020. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.15:07
The Covid pandemic has inflicted much suffering and hardship on our society. Many of our young people have had to face that pain across different aspects of their lives. I want to make it clear that I understand that anguish and I can see that, for some, the SQA results process made that worse. We set out to ensure that the system was fair and that it was credible, but we did not get it right for all young people.
Before I go any further, I want to apologise for that. In speaking directly to the young people affected by the downgrading of awards—the 75,000 pupils whose teacher estimates were higher than their final awards—I want to say this: I am sorry.
Sorry as I am, I know that an apology is not enough. I watched the pictures of the spirited, articulate young people demonstrating in George Square on Friday. I have spoken directly to pupils who wrote to me—Nicole Tate, Lauren Steele, Eva Peteranna, Erin Bleakley, Subhan Baig and Eilidh Breslin—and I thank them for the passion and clarity that they brought to our discussions. I have also heard from parents and teachers.
I have listened, and the message is clear. They do not just want an apology—they want to see this fixed, and that is exactly what I will now do.
The exceptional circumstances of this year meant that it was not safe to hold exams in the spring. I said that we would need to do our utmost to protect the interests and life chances of our young people who were due to sit exams. It was always imperative that their achievements would be rightly and fairly recognised. I wanted the 2020 cohort to be able to hold their heads high and gain the qualifications and awards that they deserved after many years of hard work.
Covid meant that there was no established process for how to achieve that. All of it had to be developed at pace after we announced that schools required to close on 20 March.
I asked the SQA to develop an alternative approach to certification, to ensure that young people could receive awards this year. The SQA developed a model, which gathered teachers’ and lecturers’ estimates in the absence of any other information and involved moderation of those estimates across all centres, to maintain standards.
That resulted in an increase in the pass rates of 2.9 per cent at national 5, 4.2 per cent at higher, and 5.5 per cent at advanced higher. Before I go any further, let me congratulate those tens of thousands of young people who achieved that strong result.
The system also meant that some people did not receive the awards that they felt they were capable of achieving and which their teachers believed they deserved.
The focus has, understandably, been on the impact on young people from deprived backgrounds. The defining mission of this Government is to do all that we can to improve the life chances of children and young people who live in poverty. We have focused intensely on that mission during this session of Parliament. The fact is that the results last week produced higher increases in the pass rates among young people from deprived backgrounds than among young people from any other group. I commend those young people on their achievements.
However, that picture does not disguise, or detract from, the clear anger and frustration among some young people and their families about their results. That anger stems from the unfairness that they feel is at the heart of the model for certification that we put in place.
The process relied on the professional judgment of teachers and lecturers, and we know that it was subsequently the case that the overwhelming majority—around three quarters—of those grade estimates were not adjusted at all. That is a demonstration of the strength within our teaching profession and the sound understanding of standards across the suite of qualifications and through curriculum for excellence. I thank the teaching profession for the care and attention that went into making every individual estimated grade.
The estimates that were received in May showed an increase in attainment at grades A to C by 10.4 percentage points for national 5s, by 14 percentage points for highers and by 13.4 percentage points for advanced highers. Those estimates, if grades were awarded without moderation, would have represented a very significant increase in the pass rate across the board and a one-year change without precedent in Scottish exam history. To ensure that it carried out what I asked of it, which was that the results were to be certificated on the basis of maintaining standards across all centres, the SQA judged that increases of that nature could not be sustained without moderation.
Moderation is not a new process. It is an annual process and is widespread across all countries where exams take place. It helps to ensure that standards are maintained over time. In previous years, moderation was applied to quality assure centre assessment judgments of performance. This year, it was applied to teacher and lecturer estimates.
The SQA has provided a significant amount of information about how its methodology works, which I will not restate today. Some people have called for that to have been done earlier but, every year, the SQA provides the details of its marking methodology on results day and, although the methodology has changed this year, the principle of publishing on results day remains the same.
The moderation methodology consisted of both national and local moderation and was robust and based on a number of principles that the SQA has set out. There was always going to be a risk with that approach that, despite best efforts, some learners would see a grade adjusted in a way that did not reflect their potential. That is why the SQA included an open, free appeals process in its approach from the outset.
As a result of the SQA moderation process, 134,000 teacher estimates were adjusted, with just under 76,000 candidates having one or more of their grades lowered when compared to the teacher estimate.
Despite the headline improvements in the pass rate at national 5, higher and advanced higher, despite the fact that the pass rate among pupils in the most deprived areas increased at a sharper rate than pass rates in the least deprived communities, and despite the fact that there was progress in closing the attainment gap, the results left many young people feeling that their future had been determined by statistical modelling rather than their own capability and capacity. That has left a feeling of unfairness in the minds of young people.
I draw three conclusions from all that. First, we were concerned that grade inflation, through accepting the original estimates from teachers, would run the risk of undermining the value of qualifications in 2020. In the light of events and of listening to young people, we now accept that that concern, which is not without foundation, is outweighed by the concern that young people, particularly from working-class backgrounds, may lose faith in the education system and form the view that, no matter how hard they work, the system is against them. Education is the route out of poverty for young people in deprived communities, and we cannot risk allowing that view to take hold.
Secondly, there is a view that relying on teacher judgment this year alone may give young people an incomparable advantage over pupils in other years. That view has to be weighed against the massive disadvantage that Covid has given young people through the loss of schooling, the limited social interaction, the pressure on mental wellbeing and, in some cases, the heartbreak of bereavement. Perhaps our approach to maintaining standards for the 2020 cohort alongside every other year—even though 2020 is so unique—did not fully understand the trauma of Covid for that year group and did not appreciate that a different approach might help to even things out.
Thirdly, this year, 2020, is and must be seen as unique. It has turned our society upside down. It cannot fairly be compared with previous years, and it cannot set an automatic precedent for future years. However, it perhaps merits taking a different approach in relation to certification.
Before I move on to how we resolve that issue, I want to be clear about the role of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. As I have said already, I asked the SQA to ensure that the qualifications of 2020 would be comparable to the qualifications of any other year despite the extraordinary times in which we are living. The SQA undertook the task that I set it, and it did so in good faith. I make no criticism of its actions in so doing. I am grateful to everyone at the SQA for the professional approach that they have taken.
I will now set out how I intend to resolve the issue.
I can confirm to Parliament that all downgraded awards will be withdrawn. Using powers that are available to me in the Education (Scotland) Act 1996, I am today directing the SQA to reissue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment. Schools will be able to confirm the estimates that they provided for pupils to those who are returning to school this week and next week. The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and—this is important—will inform the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other admission bodies of the new grades as soon as practical in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed.
As the First Minister confirmed yesterday, in those cases in which moderation led to an increased grade, learners will not lose that award. Many of those young people will already have moved on to secure college or university places on the strength of the awards that were made to them. To unpick them now would not in any way be fair.
Due to the unique circumstances of the situation, we will this year make provision for enough places in universities and colleges to ensure that no one is crowded out of a place that they would otherwise have been awarded.
The outcomes from the 2020 SQA national qualifications will be updated, and a revised statistical release will be available from 31 August. However, I can confirm that the provisional revised 2020 results, based on the professional judgments of Scotland’s teachers and lecturers, can be summarised as follows: a national 5 pass rate of 88.9 per cent, which is 10.7 percentage points higher than in 2019; a higher pass rate of 89.2 per cent, which is 14.4 percentage points higher than in 2019; and an advanced higher pass rate of 93.1 per cent, which is 13.7 percentage points higher than in 2019. I can also confirm that the final new headline results for national 5s, highers and advanced highers will be published by 21 August.
A result of the change in approach to awarding qualifications is that there will no longer be the need for exactly the same appeals process that was planned to consider cases in which awarded grades were lower than teacher estimates. There remains the need for the option of an appeal in some circumstances. Detail on that will be set out by the end of the week.
There are many lessons that we need to learn from our experience through this pandemic and from the difficult decisions we have had to make in unprecedented circumstances.
The 2020 SQA results have sparked a lot of debate about the future of assessment and qualifications in Scotland and the best way to recognise learners’ achievements. We have already commissioned the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to conduct an independent review of the curriculum for excellence. A key focus of that exercise is curriculum design, and that already includes looking at our approach to assessment, qualifications and other achievements and how well they articulate with the curriculum, learning and teaching. We will work with our partners at the OECD with a view to extending the remit of the curriculum for excellence review to include recommendations on how to transform the Scottish approach to assessment and qualifications, based on best practice globally.
Even before a broader review takes place, however, we need to quickly look at the immediate lessons of this year’s awards process. Coronavirus has not gone away and, although we expect next year’s exams to go ahead, we need to put in place the right plans to make sure that we do not find ourselves in the same situation again.
I am aware that many teachers will be keen to understand fully the arrangements for national qualifications in 2021. The education recovery group has discussed a number of options in relation to this, and I confirm that the SQA will begin a rapid consultation exercise on options for change later this week. That will include consideration of key issues such as increasing optionality in question papers, removing components of course assessment and adjusting the volume of evidence required in coursework tasks.
In addition, however, I am today announcing that an independent review will be led by Professor Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling. The review will look at events following the cancellation of the examination diet and the alternative certification model that was put in place by the SQA. Areas to be considered include the advice provided to awarding centres by the SQA and local authorities; the approach developed in relation to estimating learners’ grades; teachers’ estimates; the moderation methodology used by the SQA; the proposed appeals process; the impact on young people and their families; transparency and the role of scrutiny of the process; and feedback received from teachers and lecturers on the grades that were awarded last week. Given the urgency, I have asked for an initial report within five weeks with recommendations on how we should go forward this coming year.
These are exceptional times and, in exceptional times, truly difficult decisions have to be made. It is deeply regrettable that we got this wrong, and I am sorry for that.
We have listened to young people and I hope that all will now feel satisfied that they have achieved the grades that their teachers and lecturers judged that they deserved. I assure Parliament that we will look to learn lessons from the process of awarding qualifications this year that will help to inform any future actions.
Finally, I would like to thank all of Scotland’s children, young people and adult learners for the incredible resilience they have shown throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. We are immensely proud of all that they have achieved. I hope that our pupils now move forward confidently to their next step in education, employment or training with the qualifications that teachers or lecturers have judged were deserved.
Covid has at times placed unbearable pressures on us all and I wish our learners well in building on the achievements they have justifiably been awarded in these most difficult of days.
The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow up to 40 minutes for that. I ask members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons now.
I call Jamie Greene, who is joining us remotely.
I thank teachers for their forbearance throughout this period, and I also thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement, all 18 pages of it—the longest resignation speech in history, minus the resignation.
In extraordinary circumstances, Mr Swinney promised us an exam system that would disadvantage no one. He promised dialogue, openness and fairness for all. What did we get instead? A methodology that is clouded and secret; a lack of transparency and engagement; teachers being ignored; a postcode lottery that, disgracefully, penalised those from our toughest communities the most; a grading process that put the system ahead of the individual; and endless denial that there was a problem with any of that.
Just last week, the education secretary said:
“there is no evidence that young people in deprived communities have been disadvantaged”.
He was backed by the First Minister the whole way. Today, they have been forced into an apology and a humiliating U-turn.
Questions remain to be answered. First, who signed off the adoption of the methodology? Was it the cabinet secretary, the Cabinet or the SQA? More important, why was the flawed approach agreed to, pursued and defended so vigorously by him and his Government?
Secondly, how will the cabinet secretary physically ensure that those who are eligible for a university place will get one, given the implications of his comments today?
Finally, although I welcome the announcement of a short-term inquiry into the fiasco, which is something that the Conservatives have been calling for, given the importance of the wider OECD review into Scottish education, will the cabinet secretary commit to bringing forward the publication of that vital report, and most certainly before May 2021?
Jamie Greene referred to the comments I made last week about the fact that young people from deprived backgrounds had not been disadvantaged by the methodology that was used. The evidence that I cite for that is the evidence that I used in my statement. For example, the pass rate increased by 4.6 per cent among pupils in the most deprived communities, while it increased by 2.9 per cent among pupils in the least deprived communities. That demonstrates that the pass rate in the most deprived communities increased at a faster pace than in the least deprived communities.
I set out in my statement my understanding of the sense of hurt felt by young people who were predicted to do better but did not get the awards to which they were entitled. That had to be addressed, and I have remedied that in my statement.
On the question of the methodology, I want to be crystal clear. The task that I set the SQA was to ensure that we maintained standards. I did not prescribe how that was to be done because, as Professor Lindsay Paterson, who the Conservatives frequently cite to me as an expert to whom I should listen, said last weekend:
“Politicians can’t be seen to be interfering in examining. That would not be acceptable.”
That is why we have an independent SQA.
I am conscious that I have just interfered in examining. Before the wise comics on the Labour back benches stumble on to that, I put my hands up; I accept that point.
Professor Paterson’s point is that decisions on examination standards have to be taken by an independent body, and those are the arrangements. The Government sets the task—we said that we wanted standards to be maintained—and the SQA developed the methodology to enable that task to be done. The approach was pursued because we had to replace the exams that could not take place. The methodology had to be put in place, to enable that to happen.
On eligibility for university places, many thousands of young people have received awards that have enabled them to take up places already, and more young people will be able to take up places subsequent to my announcement.
The OECD review will take place as soon as the OECD can practically undertake the task, given the travel restrictions that have affected us as a consequence of Covid. The OECD is ready to carry out the work, and the Government is entirely committed to the review being undertaken at the earliest possible opportunity. However, I have explained to Parliament previously that travel restrictions and difficulties have prevented us from progressing the review in the early period that we envisaged.
[Inaudible.]—a humiliating climbdown. This one is very welcome. The restoration of pupils’ achievements, based on the judgment of teachers who know them, is a victory for fairness, common sense and for those young people who refused to take this injustice lying down.
The climbdown begs many questions about how on earth it came to this. Will the education secretary explain why he did not listen to warnings in April, May, June and July that this was exactly what was going to happen? When it did happen, why did he not act immediately? Why did he defend the results of the moderation for five days? Why was there no contrition, apology or U-turn until now? Why did he leave those young people twisting in the wind for a week, with their hopes and aspirations in shreds?
I commend the education secretary for taking responsibility now and for trying to fix this, but I ask him: will he take full responsibility for it happening in the first place and resign?
I take responsibility for my actions. I have come here to do what I think young people in Scotland want me to do, which is to fix this. I have done that right away, at the earliest possible opportunity and I have explained it to Parliament.
I have done that openly and honestly in front of Parliament to make sure that Parliament could hear my explanation. It is my duty to make sure that that is done here.
I am interested in the fact that Iain Gray welcomes the steps and the approach that we have taken. The methodology that he has criticised here is being used to address those issues in other parts of the United Kingdom and in countless other jurisdictions around the world. However, we have recognised that the application of that methodology has created an injustice and an unfairness to young people. I have come to Parliament to remedy that. I am glad that I have done that and I hope that young people will take heart that the Government has responded to their actions and protests.
We will move to open questions. There are a lot to get through. Please bear that in mind.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for his statement.
Two reviews into what has happened have been promised: a short-term review of this year’s process and a longer-term review looking at whether we have the right balance between exams and teacher assessment. Will the Deputy First Minister ensure that the views of young people, teachers, employers and other stakeholders will be part of those reviews, so that we can have complete confidence in their conclusions?
Clare Adamson raises an important point about the balance in our assessment system between exams and other forms of assessment. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about that and we can have it within the OECD review, which will engage widely with Scotland’s education community. Professor Mark Priestley’s review will look specifically at the issues that I raised in my statement about the particular approach taken this year. Engagement with young people and a range of stakeholders will be part of that process.
As my colleagues have done, I congratulate the pupils and teachers without whose campaigning in the past week this would not have happened. I welcome the Government’s adoption of all four of the Greens’ proposals to resolve the situation.
However, we should not have been here in the first place. When the Deputy First Minister became aware of the number of grades that had been lowered by moderation and of the disproportionate number lowered in working-class communities, why did he not do something about it at that point? Does he regret the refusal to publish the methodology when that was twice requested by Parliament? Does he acknowledge that one of the many fatal errors in the process was the SQA’s refusal to engage with teachers, whose professional judgment the cabinet secretary regularly praises?
I became aware of the moderation outcomes on the Thursday before the results came out, when I was given pre-release access to the statistics. By that stage, there was no conceivable way in which I could have changed the distribution of awards. I come back to the point that, under our arrangements, the SQA is an independent awarding body that acts independently of Government, and it would be inappropriate, in those circumstances, for the Government to make such a change—although I accept that I have come to Parliament today to exercise my statutory powers of direction.
I appreciate that Ross Greer has on a number of occasions pursued the point about the publication of the methodology. I explained in my statement the rationale for the SQA’s stance on that matter. Essentially, the methodology is integral to the awarding process, and it was therefore published on results day, along with the approach to marking that replaced the marking approach that the SQA would normally have undertaken.
On engagement with members of the teaching profession, the SQA has set out that one of the difficulties of undertaking such engagement was with ensuring that it could be undertaken on an equitable basis across all centres. There are about 500 centres that undertake some assessment. The SQA could not satisfy itself that it would be able to fulfil its equalities duties across the board to all centres using the dialogue that Ross Greer has suggested; that is why it was not pursued.
[Inaudible.]—he embraces a solution that he trashed just last week. How can we have confidence in an education secretary who undermines our education system in such a reckless way? John Swinney told students that the historical performance of their school would not affect their results, but it did. He was given another way, but he ignored it. He was asked to publish the methodology early, but he refused. He had plenty time to fix this, but he did not.
Does John Swinney not understand that he is now part of the problem, not the solution?
Throughout this exercise, I have tried to ensure that young people, in a situation of extremis, could be awarded qualifications when they were unable to sit the examinations for which they had been preparing. That is a wholly difficult and inconceivable situation, which we faced in a very short space of time.
I respected the independence of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and set it the task—a very difficult task—of designing an approach to certification that respected the independence of the SQA, and that would give young people the ability to have their achievements properly and fairly certificated, on a comparable basis to that of other years. That is the approach that we took.
I accept that, as a consequence of all that, some young people felt that their achievements had not been properly recorded and certificated, and I have remedied that today. I have listened and paid attention to the concerns that have been put to me; that is what I should do in difficult and challenging circumstances, and I am pleased that we will be able to rectify the matter on behalf of young people across the length and breadth of Scotland today.
Parents, pupils and teachers believe that the cabinet secretary should have rejected out of hand the previous methodology for awards, as soon as he saw how and where the impact of those changes would fall. We have just learned, from his answer to Mr Greer, that he had an additional five days to decide whether to change or challenge those results. I ask him to clarify why he chose to defend the impact that has become so apparent.
I add that this whole sorry story and today’s desperate U-turn could have been avoided if the initial methodology had been subject to proper scrutiny by the cabinet secretary ahead of being used.
With that in mind, will the cabinet secretary outline what consultation took place with external organisations on this new approach ahead of his announcement, and what concerns they raised?
This decision was arrived at after I listened carefully to the views of young people, after discussions with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and with representatives of our universities and after listening to the views of teachers and parents as part of the process. The decisions that I announced today have been formulated as a consequence of that dialogue.
In relation to Mr Halcro Johnston’s points about the methodology, I come back to my fundamental answer that in Scotland we have operated on the basis that awarding bodies operate independently of Government. That is not unique to Scotland—it is commonplace in many systems around the world. Government sets the task, and the task that I set, about which I have been very open with Parliament, was that a certification model that maintained standards should be developed. That is exactly what was developed by the SQA. As I have said, it resulted in an increase in the pass rate and in improved performance among young people from deprived backgrounds at a greater rate than among those from the least deprived backgrounds. As a consequence of that, it resulted in a closing of the poverty-related attainment gap. On a number of those measures, the results indicated significant progress.
However, the methodology also recognised that there could be individual cases that left young people feeling disadvantaged, and an appeals mechanism was built into the approach from the very outset to enable young people to appeal. All of that system was in place to enable the awards to be undertaken in circumstances in which young people could not present their own work through the normal round of examinations.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. Does he agree that, in a display of breathtaking opportunism and cynicism, Tory and Labour MSPs have shown less concern for Scottish education or pupils than a desperation to attack this Government? Does he also agree that, had his initial action been different, those same MSPs would be jumping up and down decrying a fall in standards, as they undoubtedly will next year, should the percentage of passes return to pre-pandemic levels?
Looking forward, will he explain how adjusting the volume of evidence required in coursework will aid pupils from deprived backgrounds, given that they will not have access to tutors or, in some cases, the active parental support that children from better off families will enjoy?
Part of the work that the Government has taken forward, with which Mr Gibson will be familiar, is to specifically support young people from deprived backgrounds through the Scottish attainment challenge, through which we are trying to ensure that there is extra investment in schools to which young people come from deprived backgrounds in order to support their attainment. The Government is actively trying to counterbalance the issue that Mr Gibson put to me.
He also highlighted the question about the maintenance of standards that was at the heart of the direction that I gave to the SQA some months ago; that is, that consideration had to be given to the credibility of awards from one year to another. I have accepted in the decisions that I have taken today that, in these exceptional circumstances, that can be waived. However, it is a legitimate issue to be concerned about to ensure that young people have quality in the standards of the qualifications that they achieve.
The cabinet secretary promised crystal clarity on the decision making process, but I do not think that we got that clarity. Did the cabinet secretary sign off on the use of a purely statistical method of moderation? Given the U-turn today, that decision was clearly of national significance. Was that decision signed off on by the cabinet, and when did that decision take place?
I thought that I had given clarity on that point. The design of the methodology was the responsibility of the SQA as it responded to the direction that I had given it to design a model that would maintain standards with comparable performance between individual years, as is the normal expectation of the SQA.
I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents about the SQA results, and I am sure that they will be pleased with today’s announcement. It is clear that the Scottish Government listens to the population: today’s actions certainly demonstrate that. However, can the cabinet secretary ensure that no detriment for deprived communities is a foundation stone for the reviews that are about to take place?
That issue lies at the heart of the Government’s policy agenda. The closure of the poverty-related attainment gap, the steps that we are taking to invest heavily in the Scottish attainment challenge and the commitments that we have made to concentrate on tackling the issues that underpin the existence of the poverty-related attainment gap are the measures that we will take forward in education policy. Exam and assessment results will capture the progress that we make on that.
I have set out some of the issues that we will have to wrestle with in the comparability of results between 2020 and other years as a consequence of the change to the approach to awarding that was taken this year.
Does the Deputy First Minister now accept that the utter fiasco of what happened last week has exposed fundamental failings in the whole system? The SQA is not nearly transparent enough. It is the only body in the UK that will not permit exam scripts to be returned to candidates and schools. Will he review that so that we do not go through this lack of transparency again?
I am very happy to raise the issue of exam scripts with the SQA. There is a slight problem this year in that there are no exam scripts to return to pupils because they did not sit exams. However, I am very happy to raise that issue with the SQA, and to try to provide a satisfactory answer to Liz Smith.
We will not get through all these questions if we do not have shorter questions and answers.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for listening and taking action, and ask whether, in future, the SQA will assess the impact of moderation on all marginalised and disadvantaged groups.
That is part of the statutory responsibility of the SQA in relation to its equality duties. The equality impact assessment and child rights impact assessment have been published by the SQA. They are available for scrutiny on this issue, and will be undertaken in all future years.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s U-turn. It is important that we put individual students above an algorithm that simply ignored their hard work and the professional judgment of teachers.
The remit of the review does not include examining the actions of the Scottish Government. However, I believe it is essential that we understand what went wrong. When the cabinet secretary was warned, time and time again, did he question the methodology? Did he ask for it to be modelled? What direction did he give to the SQA before the results were published? Was there any attempt to stop the car crash?
The cabinet secretary needs to publish all the papers and minutes to enable proper scrutiny. Will he now do so?
Whatever documentation we need to publish, we will publish.
However, the point that I made in explaining the approach to the design of the methodology is very important, because—as Jackie Baillie will know—the SQA is an independent awarding body. It is set up by Government, but it is not controlled operationally by Government. We have exceptional powers, which I have used, but in the ordinary scheme of events we believe that it is important for examination results to be awarded by an independent body. That is what has happened, appropriately, on this occasion.
Obviously, we will respond to any request for information that we receive, but fundamentally, at the heart of the judgments that the SQA has to make, is the ability to exercise independent decision making on important issues of this type.
I raised concerns with the cabinet secretary about how the appeals process may not deliver fairness for all pupils. I am pleased that today, with his actions, young people will no longer need to appeal. However, as we learn the lessons of this, will the cabinet secretary ensure an examination of all the elements that depress the grades of some young people, particularly in deprived communities? Can that examination look at the waterfall effect of the SQA, in effect, setting how many young people in Scotland will secure an A and subsequently downgrading across all grade groups, meaning that many people in deprived communities will have a lower grade?
That question is at the heart of all annual examination methodology. That was the point in my statement about moderation, which is not a new issue. Moderation is applied annually to ensure that standards are maintained from one year to another. That was the foundation of the approach that was taken here. As I signalled in my answer, there are different ways by which we can assess performance. We have habitually operated on that basis, which I think has generally commanded confidence. Indeed, I have not had pressure on me as education secretary to change the methodology at any stage in the past, and I take from that that Parliament has been confident in the methodology. The OECD review can explore those questions and examine whether it is the right way to proceed. As I have said, there is a very legitimate debate to be had on that question, in which the Government will happily engage.
After listening to all the questions from colleagues today, does the cabinet secretary understand that he has let down so many people over the past four months that he cannot be the person to take the new approach forward?
Obviously, I take a different view from that of Beatrice Wishart. The issues will be properly resolved through parliamentary processes, and I will leave Parliament to determine those questions.
I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement, because he has listened and he has acted. For the parents and young people in my Cowdenbeath constituency who have contacted me about concerns about downgraded results, can he provide a bit more clarity as to when they may expect to receive intimation of the new grades? They will be desperate for that oral and written confirmation. Also, can he clarify the status of the original Friday 14 August deadline for appeals? I assume that that date is no longer relevant.
We will set out later this week further clarity about the circumstances, which I expect to be much more limited, because we have obviously taken a very different approach on awarding, in which appeals will be considered.
With regard to the confirmation of results, schools will be able to indicate to young people the estimates that they submitted on behalf of individual young people and the SQA will issue new certificates as soon as it is possible to do so. I cannot give a definitive timescale today but I assure Parliament that it will be done as quickly as possible.
Donald Cameron is joining us remotely.
One of the saddest stories this week was that of Eva Peteranna, a pupil from Benbecula whom the cabinet secretary has mentioned. I welcome the fact that her grades will be amended, but young people in our island communities already face significant barriers in education. In the wake of this fiasco and embarrassing U-turn, what urgent action will the SNP Government take to ensure that pupils such as Eva are not placed at any further disadvantage?
I had the pleasure of speaking to Eva yesterday. An issue that we discussed was the e-Sgoil, from which Eva has benefited. On results day, from Stonelaw high school I spoke to pupils from schools in Argyll such as Dunoon grammar school. A young pupil there had undertaken a higher course in psychology, which would not have been possible at that school but was possible because of the e-Sgoil programme, which the Government has funded in collaboration with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Also involved in that video call were young people from Forres academy, Aboyne academy, Kirkwall grammar school and the Nicolson institute in Stornoway who, along with Eva, are utilising the e-Sgoil programme. It is a tremendous investment in digital learning that broadens subject choice for young people in remote communities, enables them to take subjects that ordinarily they would not be able to take and tries to overcome exactly the disadvantage to island and remote communities that Mr Cameron highlighted in his question.
It was a pleasure to use the technology and to see how its practical benefits are being experienced by young people in schools such as Dunoon grammar and the other schools that I mentioned.
When the future of young people in our poorest communities was at stake, the cabinet secretary refused to listen. However, when the future of John Swinney was at stake, suddenly his inability to hear miraculously disappeared.
The exams methodology has been shattered and faith in the system has been battered. The cabinet secretary and the First Minister were repeatedly warned about that, but they arrogantly ignored those warnings.
In 2000, Nicola Sturgeon called for the resignation of the then—
Could you get to your question please. Mr Findlay?
I am, Presiding Officer.
Nicola Sturgeon called for the resignation of the then education secretary over an error that affected 9,000 students. Today, John Swinney is still defending his policy decision—
Could you get to a question please, Mr Findlay?
—that affects 75,000 students. I believe that Mr Swinney is an honourable man.
Would you get to the question please, Mr Findlay?
Will he do the honourable thing, take responsibility and stand down?
I am here to take responsibility, and I have done so. I have listened, I have acted and I have fixed the issue that Mr Findlay is concerned about.
The change to results that pupils and teachers have campaigned for will lead to more young people being able to go to university and college than would have been the case. That is welcome, given the very difficult experiences that young people have faced this year—in particular, through having lost months of vital face-to-face support.
In his statement, the Deputy First Minister said that colleges and universities—
Would you get to your question please, Ms Martin?
—will review offers and accept those students. Will he outline his discussions with the higher and further education sectors to ensure that those places will be available and will be resourced?
We have had discussions with the higher and further education sectors on those questions. Further guidance will be issued by the Scottish Funding Council. We will work to address the issues that arise from that once we have a clearer idea of the number of places that will be involved and the support that will be required.
The next question is from Mark McDonald, who is joining us remotely.
The cabinet secretary mentioned the long-term review that will consider the assessment of pupils more generally and examine whether the balance is correct. Given that the current situation appears to have demonstrated that pupils from more deprived backgrounds are traditionally disadvantaged by the closed-book exams system, will there be an opportunity to completely do away with that as part of how pupils are assessed and instead do something radical and new? We constantly talk about adapting to a new normal, so would such an approach be up for consideration as part of the review?
As I have highlighted in my comments, Mr McDonald has raised an entirely legitimate view of how assessments should be undertaken. However, it is not the view that predominated in the discussions that have happened so far in Scotland. There is an entirely legitimate debate to be had there, and I hope that it will be had.
If we take the example of the higher results among our most deprived communities, the teacher estimates demonstrate that they believe that 85 per cent of young people in such categories deserved to pass the exams, but the exam system in 2019 judged that 65 per cent should do so.
Mr McDonald’s point highlights the difference in approach that is at the heart of his question. There should be every opportunity for that to be explored as part of the review that we are undertaking.
If there are any pupils who are still unhappy with their grades, will they be able to sit an exam?
We do not have plans for an exam diet in this academic year. We put in place an appeals mechanism at the outset of our approach to enable young people to appeal. We will see a much narrower base and foundation for appeals as a consequence, but there are no plans to establish an exam in the autumn.
This follows on slightly from Mark McDonald’s question. The Deputy First Minister mentioned a long-term review of assessment. Today’s issue involving young people who are not sitting exams is a prime example of the opportunity that they have this time. Would the Deputy First Minister consider following the progress of this year’s pupils through college, university and employment to see whether the situation has led to greater opportunities for our young people?
Yes, I will commit to that. Sandra White highlights an important issue. We would benefit from understanding the implications of the decisions that we have taken, and Ms White’s suggestion of monitoring the progress that individual young people make is one that I will certainly pursue so that we are aware of the progress that can be made as a consequence of the decision.
Can the cabinet secretary clarify that the additional places that are required for school students who now meet the entrance requirements will be fully funded, given the financial pressures that our universities and colleges are facing?
That is an issue that we will pursue in discussion with the Scottish Funding Council, which is responsible, on our behalf, for dialogue with the institutions. We will do all that we can to ensure that those young people who are able to access university or college as a consequence of the announcements that I have made today are able to do so.