Newly published reports from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have revealed that a large numbers of teachers and pupils believe that the appeals process in 2023 was unfair. The revelations raise major questions about the organisation’s approach to managing Scotland’s exam systems, with the matter made even more pressing by the SQA’s decision to apply the same approach for those sitting National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams in 2024.

As is so often the case with the SQA, however, there’s a bit more to this story. Before the report was published, the SQA invited some journalists to a “background briefing” chaired by Richard Pidgeon, the organisation’s Head of Communications and Engagement. However, the SQA refused to make the report available in advance of the meeting, even when directly challenged on this point as the event began. This of course meant that journalists were unable to seriously scrutinise the claims being made by the SQA.

While it is, of course, always useful to have the experts on hand, the refusal to share materials in advance made it difficult to ask useful questions about specific responses. It also lead to some confusion that might not have been the case had everyone had the numbers in front of them. For instance, the SQA presentation included a comment that "care experience and ethnicity had no significant impact on learner views.” While technically true, it missed the important context that only 97 of the almost 2,300 students surveyed were care experienced. We also talked in detail about how a quarter of teachers don't understand the standards, only to be told afterwards that wasn't quite the case.

Read more:

'Stop calling them appeals': Students, teachers unconvinced by SQA process

Exam results: how does the SQA decide my grades?

Quite why the SQA felt the need to call this sort of meeting, only to refuse to provide the information that would have made it useful, is unclear, although it’s probably worth pointing out that this sort of thing has happened before.

As for the actual reports, the headline figures are remarkable. We are now in a position where the SQA has had to admit that, according to its own research, large numbers of teachers and pupils reject the idea that the current appeals process is fair.

The SQA tries to minimise this issue in two ways: firstly, by engaging in a poorly-expressed philosophical debate about the nature of fairness; secondly, by highlighting that its own staff and senior appointees “thought that the appeals process was fair to all learners”. Given that one of the most common criticisms of the SQA is that the organisation doesn’t trust teachers to make assessment judgements about students, it is grimly ironic to see its employees marking their own homework and then, in a move that will surprise precisely nobody, awarding themselves a pass with flying colours.

Having read through the reports there is clearly a profound disconnect between the SQA and the people it’s meant to serve. When asked about this, the SQA said that they listened to concerns about fairness and clarity when deciding on the 2024 system. They also found that teachers value consistency (hardly a surprise after the rolling chaos they’ve experienced ever since the 2020 results scandal) and this clearly won out in the end.

Despite the responses from teachers and students, it seems that the system for this year will be the same as the one in place last year. That means that, once again, students whose exam score falls below expected levels, and whose grades do not accurately reflect their ability, will have no option to ask for alternative evidence to be taken into account.


Learners will be able to appeal any of their final grades by requesting a review of their SQA-marked assessment components. In keeping with last year, the service will continue to be free and available for learners to access directly. Alternative assessment evidence will not be required and SQA appointees have told us that this will ensure fairness for all learners. The appeals service will include a priority service for learners with conditional offers for further education, training or employment. We continue to work closely with UCAS to ensure the outcome of priority appeals will be released ahead of their deadline.

SQA website, 7 March 2024

The SQA website states that "alternative assessment evidence will not be required" for appeals, but another way to phrase that would be that alternative assessment evidence is not accepted. The marks awarded for an exam paper can be reviewed, but if a student simply has a very bad day, perhaps after a whole year of producing extraordinary, A-grade work, then there is nothing they can do. The exam is, in almost all cases, absolute.

Is such a system fair? Should it even be called an ‘appeals’ system? Plenty of people clearly think not.

Another question to ask is whether or not this ‘evaluation’ was really carried out in good faith. Ask yourself: if the report had said that everyone thought the system unfair, and so much pressure built up that even an organisation like the SQA didn’t feel it could just ignore people’s wishes, what could actually have been done about any of that at the end of March, just a few weeks out from the start of the exam period? We asked the SQA how the processes for appeals or the EECCS in 2024 could have been changed based on these surveys, but they declined to answer.

Ultimately, this feels like more of the same from an organisation that was deemed so dysfunctional that the Scottish Government promised to abolish and replace it by 2025 - a pledge that, according to a Scottish Government spokesperson, remains the "intention".

Sadly, that means that students and teachers can also expect more of the same over the forthcoming exam period.

Read more:

Call to review exam appeals over fears of wide 'disparities'

SQA under pressure for refusing to reveal reasons for failed appeals