LAST week, the Education Secretary, John Swinney, insisted that the SQA had moderated exam results to ensure fairness and maintain standards in Scottish education. He also said that “politicians cannot be seen to be interfering in examinations”. Well, yesterday he interfered – and how.

Mr Swinney cast aside the independent Scottish Qualifications Authority and their wretched algorithms, and restored the very estimated exam grades which he, and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon had said only last week were “not credible”.

All upgraded results will stand; all 125,000 downgraded results will be reversed. Everyone wins. And all shall have prizes.

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Mind you, I don't think Mr Swinney will be interfering in many future examinations. I can't think of any ministerial U-turn that has been quite as humiliating as this one. Not least because Mr Swinney spent half of his statement defending the very moderation system that he had just discarded.

No serious government can conduct its business in this way. Mr Swinney gave no principled explanation of why he was abandoning the work of the supposedly independent SQA – other than that a number young people felt that the system was unjust. That is undeniably true and we all felt for them.

But this capitulation leaves the SQA in an impossible position, and brings the whole examination process into question. Indeed, I don't see how the SQA can continue in its present form. Certainly, it cannot conduct its normal moderation of exam results with any confidence in future years.

And nor can Mr Swinney. He must surely go now, after this fiasco, and without delay. Someone must come in to restore respect for the standards in Scottish education and serve the last rites on the Qualifications Authority.

Indeed, standardised assessment through competitive examinations looks to have had its day. As Mr Swinney hinted, it has become increasingly unpopular in recent years. Though every country including Finland, the leading edge of pedagogical progressivism, uses objective testing.

But after this fiasco, examinations like the Highers will surely lose their unique status and will likely be supplanted by teacher estimates of ability which, according to Mr Swinney, is the most reliable way to gauge academic achievement. This, even though he himself concedes that in the past teacher assessment has been no reliable guide to exam performance.

The impact on grade inflation will be as the First Minister herself forecast last week “incredible”. A 15% increase in Highers grades means that this year's students will forever be marked out as the year when exam credibility went out the window.

Whoever called the process by which the Scottish Qualification Authority adjusts exam scores to reflect past school performance “moderation” had a dry sense of humour. It has caused fury amongst teachers, pupils, parents.

The anger shows no sign of moderating even after Swinney's desperate attempt to put a lid on the worst exam crisis in 20 years. This was a statement that was as humiliating as it was self-contradictory.

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He began by explaining at length why the moderation applied by the SQA did not disproportionately downgrade students from deprived areas, as has been widely claimed. This is because the grade inflation, against historic standards, was higher in schools in these areas, at 20%, than in schools in more prosperous areas, which inflated by only around 10%. Greater moderation was therefore applied out of fairness, not classism.

He then commended the SQA's “open and transparent” adjustment methodology and insisted that it was “'in use throughout the UK and across the world". But, er, not in Scotland any more. Mr Swinney then let the algorithmic cat out of the bag by pointing out that exam moderation happens every year to some extent as the SQA, and its English equivalent Ofqual, manipulate grade boundaries. But not presumably in future.

He even announced, solemnly, that the remit of the SQA was to ensure that every student got “the qualifications they deserved”. The teacher estimates: “if awarded without moderation”, he said “ would have led to an increase in pass rates without precedent”.

So if the methodology was so fair and robust, why was he over-ruling the independent SQA and allowing this unprecedented grade inflation to take place? Well, Mr Swinney had spoken to young people who felt “their future was being determined by statistical modelling”. The credibility of exam grades was of secondary importance to “the risk that people would lose faith in the system”. Well, they certainly will now.

But does anyone seriously think that the SQA actually marked down working class students because they were living in a deprived postcode? Of course not. The SQA anyway subjected its moderation regime to an Equalities Impact Assessment – as it is obliged to do – before it published them.

Moderation by algorithm is a pretty blunt instrument and doesn't take account of individual performance. But, as Mr Swinney says, it is very widely used. Capitulating to grade inflation of up to 20% may win political points in the short term, but it will store up big problems for the future.

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Every year, grade boundaries move up and down to ensure fairness and comparable outcomes. Tens of thousands of pupils have their exam results routinely moderated. The English equivalent of the SQA, Ofqual, uses a very similar “standardisation model” against which to correct scores which depart from the historical average.

England's pandemic moderation is, according to reports, even greater than ours – 40% of grades have been adjusted downwards from the estimates provided by teachers, against 25% in Scotland. We won't know the final figures until tomorrow (Thursday) when the English A level results are unveiled. But, strangely, there has not been anything like the controversy over moderation that we have seen here.

The inconvenient truth is that the Scottish “pandemic cohort”, as they are already being dubbed, has exchanged one unfairness for another. They may have got the grades they and their teachers wanted, but those grades will forever be tainted by the chaotic and unprincipled way in which they were awarded. Handed to them by an Education Secretary in panic mode who said he had no right to interfere in examination results. And then proceeded to do just that.

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