JOHN Swinney has abandoned the downgrade of more than 120,000 exams and said original teacher estimates will be used to determine this year’s results instead. 

The Education Secretary announced the wholesale U-turn after a backlash from students who felt they had been treated unfairly by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) when it recalculated their results.

The move means overall national pass rates will now revert to the hugely inflated levels that Nicola Sturgeon dismissed as “not credible” only last week. 

The A to C attainment rates for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher are now expected to jump by 10.7, 14.4 and 13.7 percentage points compared to 2019, rising to 88.9%, 89.2% and 93.1% respectively.

Mr Swinney acknowleged the increases would be a one-year change "without precedent" in Scottish exam history.

However he said valid concerns about "grade inflation" were "outweighed" by the concern that young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, may lose faith in the education system and feel the system was 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," he said.

He also said that, while relying solely on teacher estimates might give young people "an incomparable advantage with pupils in other years", it was offset by the other disadvantages of the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Swinney, who had been facing a vote of no confidence at Holyrood, announced a short-term review of what went wrong led by Professor Mark Priestly of Stirling University. It is due to report back within five weeks.

Other work will look at what needs to change before the 2021 exam season.

The opposition called the climbdown a “humiliation” for Mr Swinney, who admitted he had known the outcome of the SQA's changes since July 30.

Looking shattered, his voice sometimes trembling, the Education Secretary said: “These are exceptional times, and in exceptional times truly difficult decisions have to be made. It is deeply regrettable that we got this wrong. 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 which 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."

Explaining how he intended to resolve the crisis, he said: "I can confirm to Parliament today that all downgraded awards will be withdrawn.

"Using powers available to me in the Education (Scotland) Act 1996, I am today directing the SQA to re-issue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.

"Schools will be able to confirm the estimates they provided for pupils to those that are returning to school this week and next.

"The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and, importantly, will inform UCAS 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.

"In those cases where 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 made to them. To unpick them now would not in any way be fair.

"Finally, due to the unique circumstances of this 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 they would otherwise have been awarded."

Pupils, who had been encouraged to appeal their downgrades, will get their new results automatically, although appeals will still be possible if desired. 

Nicola Sturgeon yesterday apologised for the fiasco, which stemmed from exams being replaced by estimates because of the coronavirus lockdown, saying: “We did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.”

Ahead of Mr Swinney’s statement, the First Minister said this year’s grades - and the context - should be regarded as “truly unique” by employers and others. 

She admitted the credibility issue “doesn’t just go away”, but said it was eclipsed by the impact of the downgrades on young people. 

She said: “That concern that I articulated last week has, I suppose, been outweighed in my mind in the days that passed since by this sense... of having some young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, thinking that the system is stacked against them no matter how hard they work at school. 

“That for me is a bigger issue now, and I don’t want that to be the case.

“Secondly, maybe we just need to see 2020 being more unique and just accept that it is unique.

“Hopefully by the exam diet next year we’ll be out of this and this year will be truly unique.

“If it is the case that some young people’s teacher estimates are above what statistically they would have been predicted to get in an exam, not individually, but statistically, then when you weight that against the not enormous disadvantage that young people have been served up as a result of Covid, then maybe we’re just balancing that out a little bit.”

The Government changes mirror the demands of the Scottish Greens, whose support was critical to Mr Swinney avoiding a successful no confidence vote.

The Greens had demanded the restoration of all teacher estimates which had been downgraded and the small number of upgrades left alone; an independent review to confirm exactly what happened despite four months of warnings that the SQA was going down the wrong route; and a wider review into how Scotland’ assesses pupil attainment.

After the coronavirus lockdown led to exams being cancelled for the first time in more than a century, teachers estimated pupil results and submitted them to the SQA.

With the estimates far out of kilter with past years, the SQA used a mathematical modelling exercise called ‘moderation’ to adjust grades to what it considered more realistic levels.

This process included looking at past year’s data, including individual school data, and led to almost a quarter of all results being changed, almost all of them downgrades.

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.

Raw teacher estimates saw these jump to 88.6%, 88.8% and 92.8% respectively. 

After moderation, these were cut back to 81.1%, 78.9% and 84.9% respectively.

Because the overestimation was greatest in schools in deprived areas, the downgrades were also greatest in those schools, leading to claims poor pupils were being treated especially harshly and marked down because of their school’s track record, not their own efforts. 

Last year, the A to C attainment rate in the most deprived areas for National 5 was 68.7%, the teacher estimate was up 15.8 points to 84.5% and after moderation this was cut to 74%.

For Highers, the deprived area A to C rate was 65.3% in 2019, the teacher estimate this year was up 19.8 points to 85.1%, and after moderation it was cut to 69.9%.

For Advanced Higher, the 2019 pass rate in deprived areas was 69.7%, the teacher estimate was up 21.7 points to 91.4%, and after moderation it was cut to 80.6%.

In the most affluent areas, the changes were less dramatic: the National 5 attainment rates in 2019, teacher estimates and moderated results were 85.8%, 92.3% and 87.1%.

For Highers, the respective figures were 81.7%, 91.5% and 84.6%; for Advanced Highers they were 83.3%, 94.1% and 86.8%. 

The SQA had previously reassured MSPs about the quality of its model, and that moderation would not result in large numbers of grades being changed.

Mr Swinney took a different note, saying the SQA had developed its model "in a very short space in time" and "in the absence" of some information, and that it had  and involved a very broad moderation of estimates.  

However he said the SQA had followed his instructions in "good faith", and he had no criticism of their actions.

He said: "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 amongst pupils in the most deprived areas increased at a sharper rate than those in the least deprived communities, and despite the fact 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 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 placed, at times, 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."

Green MSP Ross Greer said: "“I warned for four months that this would happen, and that it would be unacceptable.

"Unfortunately, the Education Secretary and SQA refused to listen then, but I am glad that they are listening now.

“The Scottish Government has agreed to implement the solutions demanded by the Greens, starting with the restoration of 124,565 grades which were lowered by the SQA’s discriminatory ‘moderation’ system.

"In this extraordinary year pupils’ grades should always have been based on the professional judgement of those who know them best, their teachers.

“With UCAS and other admissions bodies being informed of these changes imminently, young people whose hopes of moving on to university and college were shattered last week will now be able to move forward with the places they worked so hard to secure for themselves.

“The Priestly review also announced today is of vital importance. The unacceptable situation that arose this year can never be allowed to happen again. Listening to pupils and teachers is essential in ensuring that. Of course, if they had been listened to in the first place, as we had called for, much of this fiasco could have been avoided.

“The Scottish Greens have long made the case that high stakes exams at the end of the school year are a poor way of judging a young person’s attainment and may be a particularly bad way of judging pupils from the most disadvantaged communities. We look forward to the results of the OECD review and the opportunity to replace Scotland’s outdated assessment system with one fit for the 21st century.

“Scottish Greens were clear throughout this process that our priority was securing a solution for the tens of thousands of pupils, teachers and parents affected. We are glad to have achieved that today.”

Tory MSP Jamie Greene said Mr Swinney’s 18-page statement had been the longest resignation document in history minus a resignation.

He said there had been a lack of transparency, teachers had been ignored, endless denials, and the reputation of a system put ahead of individual pupils.

Labour MSP Iain Gray said it was a “humiliating climbdown” but a “very welcome one”.

He said it was a “victory for fairness, commonsense and above all those young people who refuse to take this injustice lying down”.

He also asked Mr Swinney how he had managed to get things so wrong, ignoring warnings and defending the results for a week in which young people had been “twisting in the wind”.

He said the Education Secretary should take proper responsibility and resign.

Mr Swinney said he had taken responsibility for his actions by fixing the problem.

He also said moderation was used in “countless other jurisdictions” around the world, including elsewhere in the UK, a remark that was jeered by opposition MSPs.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie accused Mr Swinney of undermining the education system, and of being “part of the problem not the solution”.

Mr Swinney said he had tried to ensure young people in an extreme situation got qualifications despite beng unable to sit exams, a previously inconceivable situation.

He said he had listened to people and rectified the situation.