Caroline and Mary are due to take exams next year. Caroline’s home is in a deprived area of Glasgow while Mary’s is not. Should Caroline bother working hard at school, or has Scotland become as much of a postcode lottery on education as health? Discuss

IF Caroline were going by the 2020 results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority released this week, she might be forgiven for pulling the duvet over her head when schools return next week. For the country’s exam regulator, and by extension the Scottish Government, have made a right porcus auris of matters (that’s pig’s ear to those in the cheap seats).

To recap. With exams cancelled for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was left to teachers to estimate the grades a pupil could expect, and then the SQA would step in to moderate the result up or down. Not ideal, but this was an unprecedented situation, best that could be done in the circumstances, good intentions all round, autofill as required.

Yet from the outset the most important part of the process, the moderation of results, was shrouded in mystery, like the recipe for some secret sauce. MSPs, teachers and others had asked for details of the methodology to be used, but details came there none until the day the results were published, when it was too late to do anything about it.

As it turned out, the SQA has been less than moderate in its moderation, with a quarter of results, some 124,000, downgraded.

Digging deeper, pupils from the most deprived areas were more likely to have their grades downgraded than those from the least deprived areas. Among the latter the difference between estimated and actual results was 6.9 per cent. In the most deprived areas it was 15.2%.

In making its decisions, the SQA considered a school’s past results. It was not the only consideration but it was key. So it did not matter how hard a pupil had worked all year, and what their teacher’s assessment was: the fix was in from the start. Postcode determined outcome, and once the downgrading began one domino toppled on to the next, right down to a predicted pass becoming a fail.

As Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in The Herald: “It’s bad enough to know that you have been given a B instead of an A because of what previous students achieved in your school.

“But to know you have failed a course because the SQA judged your teachers to be unreliable in making judgments is offensive.”

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Offence has duly been taken by pupils, their parents, and teachers alike, and no wonder. Once again, those Scots youngsters most in need of a fair shake have been shoved to the back of the queue  through no fault of their own. All in the name, in the words of the SQA, of "maintaining the integrity of the system”.

Had the results gone unmoderated, we are told by ministers, the pass rates would have risen to the highest on record. We could not have that, right? If pupils from poorer backgrounds genuinely began catching up with those from better-off areas then why shell out for private school fees? And if we start down that road where will it all end?

Well, we could end up with an approach to Scottish education that was more in keeping with reality than the rose-tinted, wha’s like us nonsense we traditionally feed ourselves. You can see this vainglory in action on the SQA’s own website, a destination much to be recommended if you are partial to hollow laughter. There, you will learn that the SQA is “the heart of Scotland’s world-renowned education system”.

Would this be the same world-renowned education system that has seen Scotland fall down the international Pisa rankings in maths and science and struggle to keep up in reading?

We also learn that the SQA offers “globally recognised qualifications and services to realise your potential”. Those pupils who have had results downgraded were not realising their potential – they were being judged on the performance of their predecessors.

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As for the SQA’s proclaimed values – “progressive, enabling, trusted” – the quango might want to have another look at those, particularly the last one, lest those snorts of laughter turn to bitter gales.

The Scottish Government, headed by a First Minister who said closing the attainment gap was a “defining challenge” for any administration she led, has not had the easiest of summers when it comes to education. There was the U-turn over plans for a partial return to school, and now fresh turmoil caused by the SQA’s downgrading of results.

It has been a tough time for a lot of people, parents especially, but the answer does not lie in piling unfairness on to existing inequality, as the SQA’s downgrading has done.

Its next task is dealing with the thousands of expected appeals. On that the SQA should do what it promised in the first place and properly consult teachers.

Instead of viewing teachers as biased towards their own pupils, think of them as professional observers whose opinions are as worthy of respect as your own.

The Government needs to take a grip of the situation and fast, not just for the sake of current pupils but those that come after. It is possible, in the absence of a vaccine, that we could be in the same situation next year.

The Scottish education system cannot take any more dunts to its reputation. It has nothing to do with some notion of national pride. It is about being serious when we say we believe in fairness and equality. It is about understanding the problems and addressing them as quickly as possible. It is about priorities.

This Government has had 13 years to make a difference. It is not fair to say nothing has been achieved – more people from poorer backgrounds are going to university, for example – but it is not enough and it is happening far too slowly.

Scotland must do better by its poorest children. Continuing to fail them spells failure for us all.

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