JOHN Swinney has defended the model behind this year’s exams fiasco as “perfectly fair” and admitted standards have suffered to give pupils purely estimated grades.

The Education Secretary said the Scottish Government had decided it “should not emphasise the need to maintain standards” because of the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Swinney yesterday made the biggest U-turn in his six years as education secretary by abandoning 125,000 exam downgrades imposed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

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It led to a double-digit jump in the national pass rates for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher of a kind that Nicola Sturgeon described only last week as “not credible”.

However, after a week of street protests from pupils and a backlash from parents and SNP politicians, Mr Swinney withdrew all 124,565 of the SQA’s downgrades.

The move affected around 76,000 pupils, who will now get grades based solely on the raw teacher estimates that the SQA changed to maintain credibility in the system.

The overall A to C attainment rate for National 5 is now expected to rise 10.7 percentage points compared to 2019 to 88.9%, with Higher passes up 14.4 points to 89.2% and Advanced Highers up 13.7 points to 93.1%. 

Under the SQA’s system of “moderation”, the same pass rates had been 81.1%, 78.9% and 84.9% respectively.

Mr Swinney told MSPs that there were valid concerns about this "grade inflation", but it was outweighed by a wider concern about children losing faith in the education system.

Mr Swinney, who faces a no confidence motion at Holyrood tomorrow, today admitted he had made a U-turn, but claimed he had done so because of concern for pupils rather than because he feared losing his job.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “The reflection that I made over the last seven days was that the approach that was taken, which was a perfectly fair model, which the SQA had put in place, emphasised heavily the importance of maintaining standards from previous years to this year.

“The reflection that I came to, having listened to young people, was that we had to look at 2020 differently.

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“We had to recognise that young people had had a significant disruption to their lives because of Covid, and we should not emphasise the need to maintain standards, which is the direction I had given to the SQA back in March, but we should essentially respect the concerns and the impact of Covid on young people, and give young people the estimates that their teachers had given for them.

“That was the reflection I made in the course of the last few days, having listened to young people, and gone to the Scottish Parliament to explain the change of mind I had come to.”

However the suggestion that the new grades reflect young people’s experience with Covid does not square with the way the estimates were calculated.

In its official guidance to teachers on how to produce estimates, the SQA did not include the impact of Covid as a factor.

Teachers were told to produce “a realistic evidence-based prediction of the candidate’s final attainment” in each course based on “demonstrated and inferred attainment of the required skills, knowledge and understanding for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher”. 

It added: “The integrity of these estimates is critical, because they will provide the core element of the certification process.”

Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, also said teachers had been “extremely diligent in making professional judgements on pupil estimates”. 

Ms Sturgeon also said on Tuesday that there would be a persistent question about the credibility of this year's grades.

However she urged employers to accept them given the "truly unique" context of the pandemic.

She said: “Maybe we just need to see 2020 being more unique and just accept that it is 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.”

MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee are due to quiz SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson, a former adviser to Mr Swinney, later today.