NICOLA Sturgeon has apologised for the SQA exam results fiasco, admitting ministers put concerns about “the overall system” ahead of individual pupils.

“We did not get this right and I’m sorry for that,” the First Minister said, striking a very different note from last week, when she defended the results.

She said then that if the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) had not “moderated” teacher estimates used instead of exams because of Covid, the jump in grades would be “not credible”. 

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: U-turn on exams fiasco.Camley's Cartoon: U-turn on exams fiasco.

She also encouraged pupils to appeal against grades they felt were unfair.

However after a nationwide backlash at more than 120,000 grades being marked down, and with her deputy facing a no confidence vote, Ms Sturgeon dramatically changed tack. 

Hinting that the appeal system originally planned was now being ditched, she told the daily briefing that every young person would now get a grade that reflected the work they had done, and not all would need to appeal. 

But she stressed no young person would see their grades lowered from those received last week.

She said: “We will not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal. This situation is not the fault of students, so it should not be on students to fix it. That’s on us.” 

She also said she still had confidence in her education secretary John Swinney, who will now be in charge of fixing the mess.

After the SQA botched exam results in 2000, the then Labour education minister was moved to a new job.

Ms Sturgeon said: “In a very difficult and unprecedented situation, we took decisions that we thought on balance were the right ones, and we took them with the very best of intentions.

“These were broadly the same decisions that have been reached for England and Wales as well.

“But our concern, which was to make sure the grades young people got were as valid as those they would have got in any other year, perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system, and not enough about the individual pupil.

“That has meant that too many students feel that they have lost out on grades that they should have had, and also that that has happened as a result, not of anything they’ve done, but because of a statistical model or an algorithm.

“And in a addition that burden has not fallen equally across our society.

“So despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge that we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.

“But instead of doing what politicians sometimes doo and dig our heels in, we are determined to acknowledge that and put it right.”

Ms Sturgeon went on: “There are deeper questions we will need to resolve for the longer term, about the impact of exams on the attainment gap and the difference between exams and teacher judgement.

“But the most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year.

“We will not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal.

“This situation is not the fault of students, so it should not be on students to fix it.

"That’s on us. And we will set out tomorrow exactly how we intend to do that.”

Last year, the national attainment rates at A to C for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher were 78.2 per cent, 74.8% and 79.4% respectively.

But when teachers estimated the grades for their pupils after exams were cancelled because of the lockdown, the rates jumped by 10.4, 14 and 13.4 percentage points respectively.

The SQA then looked at past year’s data, including individual school data, to reduce the pass rates to what it considered more realistic - 81.1%, 78.9% and 84.9% respectively.

As the overestimation was greatest in schools in deprived areas, the subsequent reductions were also greatest for those schools, leading to claims poor pupils were being treated unfairly and marked down because of their school’s track record, not their own efforts. 

In the question and answer session at the daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon said the government's priority was to "rectify" the SQA situation, and backed Mr Swinney, despite him approving the SQA approach that has now falllen apart.

"I accept that we did not get this right, therefore the onus will be on the government to fix this."

She added: "I don't attach any blame to the SQA for this. This is ministers' responsibility."

She said she understood many pupils would think it "deepy unfair" that they were being graded by an algorithm.

She said: "I'm not prepared this year's cohort of pupils, particurlarly those from the most deprived communities, to think that their hard word does not count if the system is determined to be against them."

Ms Sturgeon said had done "a lot of soul-searching and a lot of listening to young people".

Teacher estimates which would have seen a Higher pass rate of 85% among young people from the most deprived backgrounds, compared to around 65% last year. 

Last week, Ms Sturgeon said that 20% increase in a single year was "unprecedented and therefore not credible"

Asked about this following the announcement of a rethink, she said: "I didn't say teacher assessments are not credible.

"I said an overall outcome that led to a 20-point increase in the pass rates - and when I used those numbers last week I was talking about the bottom 20% in terms of deprivation - that I didn't think that outcome would be seen as credible."

She added: "What I'm saying now is I think, whatever the view of that is, in my mind now a bigger problem is leaving an impression with young people that it doesn't matter how hard you work at school, some algorithm is going to get in your way. 

"I'm not prepared to have that, and that is why we will set out the alternative approach...tomorrow."

Shortly before Ms Sturgeon spoke, Labour published the text of its no confidence motion.

It urged MSPs to record their lack of faith in Mr Swinney “in light of his mismanagement of schools education and in particular of this year’s awarding of grades to Scotland’s school pupils and the unfairness of the system applied by the SQA”.

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said: “John Swinney has presided over the greatest scandal in education in Scotland for decades and for five days refused to acknowledge any failure. This is unacceptable.

“Scottish Labour has today formally submitted a motion of no confidence in John Swinney and is actively seeking the support of parliamentarians. 

“John Swinney has made it clear that he has no confidence in the teachers or pupils of Scotland. It is now Scottish Labour’s task to inform the Education Secretary that the people of Scotland have no confidence in him.”

The Scottish Tories have said they will support the motion, but the Greens, whose votes would be critical to it passing, have stopped short of that in their otherwise stinging criticism.

Green MSP Ross Greer said: “I’m pleased that the First Minister has now acknowledged that her government got this wrong and apologised.

"The working class young people who were unfairly treated last week need an urgent solution to this unacceptable situation.

"The Education Secretary's statement to Parliament must announce the kind of systemic solution the Greens have demanded, otherwise our confidence in this government's ability to discharge its responsibilities in education will come into question."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said Mr Swinney has 24 hours to put together a package of measures to fix the SQA exam results scandal.

He said: “We will listen to John Swinney’s proposals in Parliament and if we are not satisfied with what he puts forward, we will vote to remove him.

“The Deputy First Minister cannot casually blame the pandemic for his failures. For months he was warned repeatedly to turn back before it was too late. There was another way and he rejected it.

“We need a solution to this chaos, and we need to hear a compelling case for why John Swinney should be the one to carry this out. 

“If the Education Secretary had listened to teachers and experts and acted earlier, thousands of young people would not have been put through a system that denied pupils equal opportunities and reinforced inequalities."