Scotland’s Education Secretary is at the centre of a growing storm over national qualifications after newly unveiled plans for this year’s appeals process sparked accusations that pupils are being failed yet again.   

Shirley-Anne Somerville came under fire despite announcing that learners would be able to appeal directly, and free of charge, against results awarded through the alternative certification model (ACM).

However, the planned scheme does not include a “no detriment” policy, meaning grades could be revised up or down.

It follows cancellation of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams, with results instead based on teacher judgement supported by evidence of achievement.

But the SQA’s requirement for attainment to be “demonstrated” and a second period of pandemic-related school closures have led to many pupils enduring a gruelling treadmill of assessments.

READ MORE: Pupils given right to challenge grades directly

Ms Somerville told MSPs that ensuring individuals achieve “fair and credible” awards was the Government’s “absolute priority”.

And following last year’s results fiasco - when teacher estimates were downgraded only to be restored in the wake of a public outcry – the Education Secretary stressed there would be no use of algorithms or a school’s past performance data. 

"Awarding qualifications will always be challenging under these circumstances, but we believe that the model we have is the fairest solution in the interests of young people," she added.

Critics, however, said pupils, parents and teachers were being let down and insisted the appeals system would provide “little comfort”.

They also highlighted uncertainty over whether “individual exceptional” circumstances would be considered and claimed the process was designed to discourage challenges.

There are signs the planned scheme has caused a major rift in the National Qualifications (NQ2021) group, which developed the alternative certification model.

HeraldScotland: This year's National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled due to the impact of Covid-19.This year's National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled due to the impact of Covid-19.

Liam Fowley, MSYP and Vice-Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP), said: “Young people have been making the point for months that a fair and robust appeals process must include a policy of no-detriment so young people are not unfairly deterred from appealing.

“It also must take into account the exceptional circumstances that many young people have gone through over the past year, including bereavement, illness, and mental health challenges. This appeals system does neither of those two things.

“SYP is a member of the SQA’s National Qualifications Group and have argued strongly in that group that the appeals process needed to do these two things, to avoid breaching young people’s rights.

“Unfortunately, the SQA have chosen to disregard those views in publishing their process and not meaningfully engaged with young people in its development.”

Eileen Prior, Executive Director of parents' organisation Connect, said: “We continue to have major concerns about the alternative certification model, reflecting the comments we have received from very many parents, and now also the appeal system that backs it up. How exactly are personal circumstances, reflecting prior achievement, and teacher judgement factored into the process? Who will support young people and their families if they want to appeal?”

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She added: “We have campaigned throughout for a 'no detriment' approach in the appeals system but this has been ignored. Appeals can lead to lower grades. This is a deliberate attempt to reduce the numbers of appeals.”

Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner, said: “It was not clear from the statement today if the appeals process will take into account young people’s individual exceptional circumstances that have hampered them from being able to evidence their learning in the past year.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a number of circumstances that may have affected young people’s ability to demonstrate their attainment. Some may have experienced bereavement, ill-health or have been excluded from a lot of their education by not having access to a device for remote-learning. This needs to be taken into account in a rights-compliant process.

"I’ve already heard from one young person watching the statement who described ‘feeling gutted’ and that the information today had not helped their anxiety." 

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “No allowance will be given for personal circumstances faced by pupils. We know that the most disadvantaged young people have been worst affected.” He added: “It is astonishing that we find ourselves here. There is little comfort for pupils, parents and teachers in this process.”

HeraldScotland: EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan called on politicians and commentators to support the qualifications process.EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan called on politicians and commentators to support the qualifications process.

However, EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan called upon politicians and commentators to support delivery of qualifications for this year’s students.

“Although some schools have made use of SQA assessment instruments, teachers are able to draw on whatever evidence they regard as valid in determining grades,” he said. “Also, unlike high-stake exams, the evidence does not need to be produced in a one-off event and, crucially, the professional judgment of teachers will not be challenged by the SQA.”

The SQA stressed that the NQ2021 Group had published additional information on a new service aimed at young people who have suffered severe disruption to learning and will not have all their evidence completed ahead of the June 25 deadline for provisional results submission.

READ MORE: Glasgow schools boss calls for grades overhaul

It said the arrangement would allow schools, colleges or training providers to conduct outstanding assessments and send results to the authority by noon on September 3.

Fiona Robertson, SQA Chief Executive and Scotland’s Chief Examining Officer, said: “Every effort is being made across the education system to support learners after an exceptionally challenging year, and to ensure they get the right result, first time. However, an appeals process must be available to learners. For the first time, learners will have a direct right of appeal to SQA. The grounds for appeal are broad and the service is free.”