Critics are demanding that the SQA reconsider a ‘refusal to be open’ with pupils whose exam appeals were rejected in 2022.

Pupils seeking further information about the reasons for unsuccessful appeals have been told that providing such material ‘would not be possible’, but information obtained by the Herald has now cast doubt on that claim.

It comes after we revealed huge disparities in appeal success rates at schools across the country, prompting demands for the Scottish Government to review the system and ensure young people are not disadvantaged.

Read more: Call to review exam appeals over fears of wide 'disparities'

Last year students in S4-6 sat traditional exams for the first time since the start of the Covid pandemic. 

The SQA introduced an appeals system in which teachers submitted predicted grades for all students based on in-school assessments and ongoing work.

Those whose final exam performance fell short of expectations could then have their award reconsidered, with their school submitting supporting evidence such as prelim papers. 

A senior subject specialist would then review the evidence and award the appropriate grade, an approach that the SQA claimed would ensure fairness for all.

More than two thirds of more than 58,000 total appeals were rejected by the SQA because it did not agree that the evidence provided met the requirements for a higher grade. 

The EIS teaching union has already criticised the narrow range of material accepted by the SQA for appeals last year.

Speaking directly to the Herald, one parent outlined their daughter’s attempts to better understand why a Higher Physics appeal was rejected.

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The pupil in question was predicted an A and narrowly missed out on this in the final exam.

Documents provided by the parent show that the school submitted two prelims as supporting evidence for an increased grade but the appeal was rejected by the SQA. 

She said: "The school has been very open with me. They say they are surprised that my daughter’s appeal failed as it was strong. They say they have pursued the SQA for reasons but they won’t discuss it. The SQA has remarked the school’s prelims but won’t comment on the prelim or the mark.

"It would be hoped that the SQA would show a duty of care to pupils to be fair and consistent but the lack of feedback to the school on the reason for the appeal rejection is a big concern. 

"If the teachers have been given no reason as to why their papers were rejected, they will not know what to improve or change in their course delivery or prelim papers for future cohorts."

In correspondence released under Freedom of Information laws, government and SQA officials draft and discuss responses to a number of parents and pupils who have raised concerns about the appeal process. 
Replies repeatedly state that SQA have advised that there is no opportunity to provide individual feedback regarding appeal outcomes.

In a letter to education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, one parent states that she is ‘disappointed’ with a ‘non-specific’ previous response to her concerns and goes on to highlight the lack of feedback available regarding appeals. 

She raises the prospect of appeals being rejected because schools did not comply with the evidence required, arguing that, in such circumstances, serious questions must be asked of the SQA as to why the guidance issued by them could generate such a scenario.

The letter ends with a threat of ‘judicial proceeding against the SQA’.

A separate email exchange between the Scottish Government and the SQA refers to a legal challenge being made regarding an unsuccessful appeal and ‘the lack of individual feedback’. 

The SQA confirms that the issue is following due legal process with Brodies.

In response, a spokesperson for the SQA told The Herald that the organisation always experiences some challenges from learners when they receive the outcomes of their appeals but there has been no legal action taken against SQA in relation to last year’s appeals service.

However, the organisation confirmed the policy of not releasing further appeals information, a decision made in part because of the sheer number of challenges received: "Because each appeal was based on an individual review of a learner’s alternative evidence, and due to the volume of appeals (over 60,000), it was agreed with partners from across the education community that providing detailed individual feedback would not be possible."

The spokesperson also confirmed that in a very small number of exceptional cases a short explanation was provided.

Requests for further clarification of what constituted an exceptional case were declined.

Critics have now demanded greater transparency from the SQA to ensure fairness for all.

Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, urged the SQA to engage with pupils ‘in full’ and to ensure that the appeals system respects young people’s rights.

He said: "Any indication of disparity in the appeals process for young people across Scotland is worrying. The SQA should be transparent about their decision-making and any request from a pupil to understand the reason for an appeal being declined should be responded to in full. A rights-compliant appeals process must have the child’s best interests as its primary consideration.

"It must work for the young person and be a fair and equitable process that is not reliant on them having someone to strongly advocate for them," he added.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Willie Rennie said: "Over the last few years, young people have been put through the ringer by the exams process and many have been left feeling that their grades haven’t properly reflected their work. John Swinney’s loathed exams algorithm penalised pupils from the poorest backgrounds.  

"This news on appeal rates, and the refusal to be open with those who spent months working hard, once again points to a process that is detached from the pupils and schools it is supposed to work in partnership with. Common sense coordination is needed to establish clarity and consistency."

Mr Rennie also raised concerns about promised reform of both the SQA and national agency Education Scotland, warning that the government now seems determined to water this down and change little more than the plaque on the front door.

"That would be a betrayal of all those who have been let down by the system and who believed the SNP when they said things would change. It is time to put teachers at the heart of those organisations instead."

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra MSP said that the appeals process should be conducted on a principle of maximum transparency following years of SQA and Scottish Government-led chaos in the exams and appeals system.

"Public confidence in the system has been undermined, which led to the announcement that the SQA was being scrapped and replaced. If we are to bolster that public confidence it can only be done through transparent and rigorous processes."

The Scottish Government declined to comment on the calls for further transparency from the SQA.