One year ago yesterday, the Scottish Government and SQA tried to balance the educational books on the back of the poor. Faced with increased pass rates that threatened their comfortable status quo, they targeted grade reductions on schools serving our most deprived areas.

In schools with the lowest numbers of pupils receiving free school meals, just under 10 per cent of passing grades were turned into fails, but that figure jumped to more than 20 per cent in schools with the highest numbers of deprived pupils.

Both Nicola Sturgeon and then education secretary John Swinney tried to argue that this discriminatory approach was not just acceptable but necessary. Without it, they argued, the 2020 results would not have been ‘credible’. It was all about fairness, they insisted – somehow with a straight face. They spent a week defending this absurd position while at the same time some of the pupils affected – the ones who had been told, loud and clear, that their postcode defines them and they should know their place – protested the obvious injustice.

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In the end, the powers that be lost the battle. John Swinney was sent over the top to deliver a humiliating apology in the Scottish Parliament, and every single downgraded result was changed back to the original, teacher-generated award. Soon after, Swinney survived a vote of no confidence thanks to the support of the Greens, but he never really recovered whatever authority he might previously have possessed. Nicola Sturgeon, who at one time wanted to be judged on her record, largely evaded serious scrutiny. The head of the SQA, who to this day refuses to apologise or even accept that her organisation did anything wrong, has kept both her job and her eye-watering salary.

What happened last year is simple: the people in charge were desperate to keep grades in line with previous years, were quite willing to manipulate them in order to achieve that, and saw absolutely no problem with the poorest children being the ones to pay the price. If the now-infamous algorithm had ‘maintained standards’ by pulling down the grades of middle-class kids there is precisely zero chance that it would have been implemented, let alone defended. We all know that’s true.

But at least such a system would never be used again, right? Wrong.

This year, the exact same principle has been applied. The government and SQA have once again attempted to manipulate results in order to keep them roughly in line with past trends, which of course means roughly in line with a school’s past grades. But unlike last year, when they at least had the courage to be upfront about it, this time they have tried to achieve it by stealth.

Exams were ‘cancelled’, we were told, but if you know any teenagers in any capacity you’re almost certainly aware that they spent weeks being ground through exams (provided by the SQA, by the way) as a result of the official demands for evidence. Teachers were barred from taking students' circumstances into account. And while the SQA wouldn’t be changing any grades after they have received them, schools were expected to check this year’s results against previous years before they were even submitted.

To make matters worse, the data from 2020 was explicitly excluded from that process, which is a clear attempt to suppress the 2021 results and push grades back down to pre-pandemic levels, despite the fact that students faced more, not less, disruption during the most recent school year.

It is a quite astonishing act of cruelty and whether it is driven by incompetence or contempt is immaterial.

We will find out next week how successful these tactics have been, but the last 18 months have already proven beyond all doubt that radical changes are needed. The SNP - in a desperate attempt to distract us all from the content of the recent OECD report - has already announced that it will abolish the SQA, but there’s every chance that this will end up being little more than a (probably expensive) rebranding exercise. Instead, what we need is a fundamental reform not just to the structures of Scottish schooling, but also the attitudes of those who pull the strings. That’s the only way to learn the lessons of the pandemic and build a system that is fit for the 21st century and, most importantly, good enough for our children.

James McEnaney is an English lecturer and journalist. His new book: 'Class Rules: The truth about Scottish schools' is out soon.