The Scottish First Minister said on Monday that despite educators and officials “best intentions”, the system had not worked as planned after vast swathes of grades estimated by teachers were marked down.
With exams cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 crisis, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) employed a model of teacher evaluation and moderation to help determine results.
However, officials then applied a moderation technique which led to about 125,000 estimates being downgraded based on criteria including schools‘ historic performances.
Ms Sturgeon said that too much focus was given to the system rather than individuals by the method and acknowledged those in more deprived areas were hardest hit.
Pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland had their grades reduced by 15.2 per cent compared to 6.9 per cent in the most affluent parts of the country.
“I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that,” Ms Sturgeon said at Monday’s briefing.
“Our concern – which was to make sure that the grades young people got were as valid as those they would have got in any other year – perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil.
“That has meant that too many have lost out on grades that they think they should have had and also that that has happened as a result of not of anything they’ve done but because of a statistical model or an algorithm, and in addition that burden has not fallen equally across our society.”
The First Minister added that Education Secretary John Swinney will set out a plan to rectify the matter at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, but said she did “not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal”.
“The most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year,” she said.
“We will be taking steps to ensure that every young person gets a grade that recognises the work they have done.”
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Mr Swinney has meanwhile faced calls to resign from opposition parties, with Scottish Labour set to mount a no-confidence vote against him in Holyrood.
The Conservative Party in the Scottish parliament has pledged to support Labour’s bid to topple the education secretary, but the Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats have withheld judgment until they hear the measures to be announced by Mr Swinney.
Speaking after the coronavirus briefing on Monday, when Nicola Sturgeon said too much focus was put on the system as a whole rather than the individual pupil, Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie said the Education Secretary has 24 hours to fix the problem.
He said: “We will listen to John Swinney’s proposals in Parliament and if we are not satisfied with what he puts forward, we will vote to remove him.
“The Deputy First Minister cannot casually blame the pandemic for his failures.
“For months he was warned repeatedly to turn back before it was too late. There was another way and he rejected it.”
As well as calling for a solution to the exam results problem, Mr Rennie also said there will be a “compelling case” made for Mr Swinney to be the one to carry it out.
Greens education spokesman Ross Greer welcomed the First Minister’s apology.
He added: “I’m pleased that the First Minister has now acknowledged that her Government got this wrong and apologised.
“The working class young people who were unfairly treated last week need an urgent solution to this unacceptable situation.
“The Education Secretary’s statement to Parliament must announce the kind of systemic solution the Greens have demanded, otherwise our confidence in this Government’s ability to discharge its responsibilities in education will come into question.”
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Votes are needed from all parties in the chamber to pass a vote of no-confidence in Mr Swinney, who is also the Deputy First Minister.
Ms Sturgeon, for her part, expressed her support for her deputy at Monday’s briefing.
She said: “When we get things wrong, I want to be able to stand here and acknowledge that and put it right, because I think fundamentally that’s better than simply digging our heels in and trying to defend a position we think in our hearts we didn’t get right.
“That’s the approach I will take, it’s the approach the Deputy First Minister is going to take and I hope that’s the one that young people affected and their families will see as the right approach to take.”
The First Minister also said she is “not prepared” to have young people feel that “no matter how hard they work at school, no matter how seriously they take education, the system is stacked against them”.
While the SQA developed the methodology, the First Minister “absolved” the qualifications authority of responsibility because it was done at the behest of Scottish ministers.
She said: “Ministers asked the SQA to apply an approach that delivered a set of results that are comparable in terms of quality to last year’s.
“This is a view that ministers are taking now that it didn’t take enough account of the individual circumstances.”