Scottish pupils have achieved record A grades alongside a slight fall in the overall pass rate, but the attainment gap has widened despite a new grading process this year intended to address inequalities.
Opposition politicians described the SNP government’s record on education as “shambolic” and called for the head of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to stand aside as data revealed pupils from the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to have their grades fall at Higher and Advanced Higher than young people from the most affluent backgrounds.
As 137,000 Scottish pupils received formal confirmation of their results on Tuesday morning, a national picture emerged of grade A attainment rates of about one in every two entries at all levels: 46.7% for National 5, 47.6% for Higher and 51.0% for Advanced Higher, all up on the previous five years.
The percentage of pupils achieving A to C grades in their Highers fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 87.3% in 2021, although the total remains well above the 75% pass rate from 2019, and the results reflect the largest number of Higher passes since at least 1999.
A total of 90.2% of Advanced Higher candidates achieved a pass, down from 93.1% in 2020, while National 5 scores dropped from 89% to 85.8%.
With exams cancelled for the second year because of the pandemic, results were based on an alternative model of school assessments and teacher judgment, with the SQA sampling work from different schools for “quality assurance”.
This process drew heavy criticism over so-called “ghost exams” – where pupils faced high-stakes testing up to three times a day with none of the usual support – amid concerns from parents that ongoing Covid disruption made it impossible to ensure consistency of learning, in particular for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds.
SQA officials accepted that the overall attainment gap had widened slightly compared with last year, but pointed out this was narrower than in 2019. The difference in attainment between those from the most deprived and most affluent backgrounds at Higher level increased by 1.9% for an A grade and 1.2% for A to C grades.
The overall Higher pass rate for the wealthiest pupils was down by 1.1%, the drop among the most disadvantaged was more than double that, at 2.5%.
Fiona Robertson, the chief executive of the SQA, said the authority, which is to be disbanded and replaced with a new specialist agency following ongoing criticism, had worked hard to “ensure equality is at the heart of our approach”. She acknowledged the “slight widening” in the attainment gap but said this should be understood in the context of previous years when the gap had narrowed.
She welcomed the “strong set of results that recognise learners’ hard work and resilience” and said pupils should have “full confidence in the results”.
The Scottish government’s education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said pupils had delivered “a strong set of results, achieved under extraordinary circumstances”.
Last year’s results caused a huge political row when the then education secretary, John Swinney, was forced to intervene after 124,000 exams were downgraded by the SQA following teacher assessments, affecting disadvantaged pupils most significantly and leading to furious protests by pupils, teachers and opposition parties.
This year for the first time pupils can appeal directly to the SQA if they are unhappy with their grades, and Robertson confirmed that just under 4,000 appeals had already been lodged before this Thursday’s deadline.
But the process does not include a right of appeal for exceptional circumstances, such as disruption relating to the pandemic, and marks may be downgraded as well as upgraded.
Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, Michael Marra, called on the government to implement a “re-sit guarantee” without delay, saying: “Scottish education has suffered from a total lack of leadership this year. We see this in everything from the late cancellation of exams, to the shambolic rollout of the alternative certification model, to the appeals system which took none of this year’s extraordinary circumstances into account.”
Calling for Robertson to stand down, the Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Beatrice Wishart, said: “The fact that the gap between the richest and the poorest has increased again makes a mockery of SNP promises to close the attainment gap. The blame for this sits firmly with the government and its education quangos.”