Scotland: Explainer: Why are so many Leaving Cert students feeling anxious about an exam results scandal in Scotland?

Scotland/ 14 August 2020/ Source/

Department of Education needs to learn harsh lesson from counterparts after recent debacle over predictive marking system highlights issues of potential prejudice and possible litigation

Student sitting at desks writing during an exam

Student sitting at desks writing during an exam

Tens of thousands of school pupils in Scotland are to have their exam results upgraded after the Scottish government agreed to accept teacher estimates of scores. The government U-turn follows an outcry from pupils after a moderation system saw 125,000 estimated results being downgraded. But why is this of such interest on our shores? We explain why the Irish education system needs to study the Scottish grading failure to pass Leaving Cert test…

Why are Leaving Cert students feeling anxious about the Scottish exam results scandal?

Nicola Sturgeon’s embarrassment has fuelled fears that our own state exams could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Last Monday, the Scottish First Minister apologised for her government’s handling of this year’s Highers (the equivalent of our Leaving Cert), admitting its predicted grades system had discriminated against pupils from poorer backgrounds.

pposition politicians here have pointed out, the Department of Education is currently implementing a similar plan, and it remains to be seen if we can avoid a similar fiasco.

What exactly went wrong in Scotland?

Essentially, the idea was not properly thought through. Sturgeon decided last March that due to Covid-19 it would be impossible to hold exams in the normal way

  Scottish school pupils to receive original exam marks estimated by teachers
Instead, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) asked teachers to estimate what grades their pupils would have got, then moderated the results with a statistical model to bring them into line with previous years.

However, when those figures came in, the SQA concluded that around a quarter of teachers had been too generous. The moderation process then led to nearly 125,000 grades being marked down and fewer than 10,000 bumped up.

This wasn’t a problem in itself, but it also emerged that pass rates for pupils in deprived areas had been reduced by 15.2pc, while better-off schools suffered by only 6.9pc.


In other words, the outcome seemed totally unfair, prompting thousands of disappointed school-leavers across Scotland to stage protests while chanting slogans such as “Stop the postcode lottery”.

How is this mess going to be sorted out?

On Tuesday, Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney executed a complete U-turn.

Swinney survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence yesterday, but he remains damaged.

Meanwhile, UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson rushed to ward off a similar nightmare in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by declaring that pupils there can treat their mock A-levels and GCSE grades as final results.

How does all this compare with what Ireland is planning for the Leaving Cert?

On the surface at least, there’s very little difference. Irish teachers have already awarded Leaving Cert grades based on how they think their students might have performed.

Now the Department of Education is applying a “national standardisation” process to iron out any inconsistencies and arrive at final results. If anything, Ireland may be even more vulnerable as there’s no tradition here of teachers predicting marks, whereas even before Covid-19, the UK initially allocated some college places based on expected scores.

What’s the biggest specific concern?

Basically, it all comes down to whether high-performing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose out because of their schools’ past records.

One line in particular on the Department of Education’s website has raised fears about exactly that: “Estimated marks from each school will be adjusted to bring them into line with the expected distribution.”

Opposition TDs such as Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin think this sounds suspiciously like “school profiling”, giving students from wealthier areas a hidden advantage.

“The Labour Party wants to be wrong,” Ó Ríordáin said. “But unfortunately, those who said the very same thing in Scotland were proven to be right.”

How has the Government tried to allay these fears?

In a statement on Tuesday evening, Education Minister Norma Foley acknowledged that the Scottish debacle has made some people nervous, but insisted we have nothing to worry about.

The Irish model, she said, “does not impose any predetermined score on any individual”.

“Provided the school has accurately reflected the relative differences between any students within the class, there will be no barrier to any excellent student achieving high grades in any school,” Mrs Foley added.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris claimed on Wednesday that our system is “sophisticated” enough to give everyone the results they deserve. He has indicated more university places will be created this year to cope with any extra demand if grades are higher than usual.

Should that not put our minds at rest?

No, because the Department of Education is still refusing to publish the standardisation model it insists is so safe.

Until or unless that happens, any reassurances can only be taken on trust.

With so much uncertainty, is there a danger that many pupils unhappy with their results will resort to legal action?

Yes. In fact, the Attorney General has reportedly warned ministers to expect lawsuits.

This week, the High Court is hearing a case brought by an 18-year-old boy in Co Mayo who has been taught at home by his mother. Because close family members are not regarded as impartial, he is excluded from the calculated grades process, and claims this is a breach of his constitutional rights.

On a lighter note, the writer Paul Howard (creator of rugby jock Ross O’Carroll-Kelly) once told a story that shows just how litigious parents can be. During his days as a sports journalist covering Leinster schools matches, Howard accidentally attributed a try to the wrong player. Shortly afterwards, he received a solicitor’s letter from the real scorer’s father demanding a “retraction and apology”.

When will we know if we have managed to avert a Scottish-style shambles?

This year’s Leaving Cert results are due to be announced on September 7. That gives Mrs Foley and her officials just enough time to do some late revision and learn any lessons from Scotland’s epic failure – but they’ll have to knuckle down fast.


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Scotland: Explainer: Why are so many Leaving Cert students feeling anxious about an exam results scandal in Scotland? – Sarraute Educación María Magdalena

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