Marian Craig discusses the predicted exam results for the Scottish Highers.
Nicola Sturgeon said back in 2015: ‘My priority for my time as First Minister – and let me be clear I want to be judged on this – is that every young person should have the same advantage that I had when I was growing up in Ayrshire. They should know that if they have the talent and work hard enough, they will be able to fulfil their potential.’
In the Labour movement, those are values that we certainly share. Yet on this year’s SQA results day, we learned a cruel lesson: in 21st century Scotland, you will be judged on your wealth, not your merit.
It is true that 2020 is a year like no other. For the first time, exams across the UK were cancelled due to the pandemic, leaving students at the mercy of predicted grades. The Scottish Qualifications Authority also introduced a ‘moderation’ system this year, which took into account each school’s past performance – resulting in almost a quarter of entries marked down.
Yet across all three examination levels (National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher), pupils in the 20% most deprived parts of Scotland were more likely to have their grades lowered by the ‘moderation’ process than pupils from the wealthiest areas. At National 5 level, pass rates fell by 10.5% for the most disadvantaged pupils. At Higher level, the figure was a shocking 15.2% and for Advanced Highers, pass rates were cut by 10.8%. The pass rates for those in the richest 20% of Scotland fell by 5.2%, 6.9% and 7.3% respectively.
Behind these numbers are young people’s hopes and dreams. Heartbroken parents and teenagers took to Twitter to share their stories, including one account of a student from an area classed as ‘deprived’, who was predicted an A grade by their teacher but instead received an F from the exam board.
Although the First Minister has promised the (£30 per pupil) fees charged to schools to appeal examination results will be waived this year, for pupils who were relying on grades to get a college or university place, it is too little, too late. Figures from 2015 indicate that just under 20% of appeals were successful. Only time will tell if this year will be any different, but the odds appear to still be stacked against young people from working-class backgrounds.
As someone whose school was firmly in a big blob of SIMD* red and consistently towards the bottom of exam results tables, I know firsthand the opportunities that access to a university education can bring. I will never forget the immense feeling of joy from knowing that my hard work had paid off when I opened my own exam results 10 years ago. Those grades enabled me to complete a degree in Politics and progress to a full-time job in London which I love. The fantastic opportunities I had at university – including the chance to make connections with people that those from working class backgrounds normally aren’t afforded, was truly life changing.
COVID-19 is already hitting the job prospects of young people hard. Closing off opportunities for social mobility will only deepen the already shameful educational attainment gap in Scotland. If the First Minister wants us to judge her on her record, then we will look at whether she has helped young people from working class backgrounds achieve their potential, or whether she has drawn up the ladder behind her.
* - The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is the Scottish Government’s statistical tool for measuring multiple aspects of deprivation in a defined geographical area.
Marian Craig is a former chair of the Young Fabians Devolution & Local Government network. She currently works in communications.
She tweets at @MarianCraig