The head of the school exams body has denied that charging £30 for grade appeals has led to state schools being priced out of the process.

Fiona Robertson said she did not feel the charge was a “disincentive” despite private schools becoming three times more likely to lodge appeals since it was introduced.

Before the charge started in 2014, state schools lodged more grade appeals than private ones.

But Ms Robertson, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), told MSPs that “guidance” to state and private schools had avoided unfairness in its post-results service.

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Labour accused the SQA of a “stubborn refusal” to acknowledge the fee had caused a fall in state school appeals and urged Scottish ministers to review it.

Prior to 2014, schools could use preliminary exam results from the academic year as part of appeals against unexpectedly low grades.

But the system changed when Standard Grades were replaced by National 4 and 5 qualifications.

Schools now face an administrative fee of £30 for a score to be checked or a paper re-marked if the appeal does not result in a grade change.

Data obtained from the SQA by Labour under the Freedom of Information Act shows that in 2013 around 6.5 per cent of finished exams scripts were appealed from the state sector, while 5.7% were appealed from the private sector. But the proportions flipped the year the charges began and the gap has since widened.

In 2018, only 2.4% of state school scripts were appealed, while 7% were appealed in the private sector.

At Holyrood’s education and skills committee, SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth asked if there was an inequality in private schools having more money to pay the fees than state schools.

Ms Robertson replied: “That has not been fed back – it has not been fed back to us in any of the discussions that I’ve had about this issue.

“I can understand why the committee may be concerned that [...] the cost may act as a disincentive.

“But I would want the committee to have some assurance that guidance has been provided to schools from the directorates of education.

“Be assured by the feedback that I get and that I’ve had from others on this, is such that I don’t feel that cost is acting as a disincentive for an appeal being put forward.”

However, Ms Robertson said she would have “further conversations” with the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and the Scottish Council of Independent Schools “to consider if there are any issues that we need to pursue”.

It is up to schools to decide whether to seek a marking review, and the SQA says it relies on the professional judgment of teachers on whether a review is an appropriate decision.

The system can also take account of “exceptional circumstances” if a pupil is unable to sit an exam or experiences distressing circumstances on exam day.

Ms Robertson added: “I think all parts of the system were mindful of the need to ensure that the charge, or the cost, did not act as a disincentive.

“There was quite a lot of work with the Association of Directors of Education to put guidance in place for local authority schools. That guidance is also used by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools to advise their schools on what a good and strong process around postresults services might be.” 

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Labour MSP Iain Gray said the fee had “slashed access” to the remarking service for state pupils.

He said: “The SQA’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the inequity built in to the system is frustrating.

“Fiona Robertson has said she is open to considering the issues around this more broadly, and having conversations with relevant parties.

“However the relevant parties she is talking to are the very ones running this unfair system.

“The SQA says it does not want to support inequity – the Government must now ensure this arms-length body conducts a full review.”