SQA results scandal: Capitalism means inequality

The “moderation” of exam grades allocated by the SQA leads to anger as schools in poorer areas have their results disproportionately downgraded.
by Finlay Stevenson

This week the allegedly progressive track record of the SNP on education has had its shortcomings scandalously exposed once again. The Scottish Government’s and the SQA’s approach to grades during the pandemic has led to anger and devastation being felt by thousands of students across the country as they are robbed of their futures by an unfair system of distributing grades.

The results

On the 17th of March, the Government decided to cancel exams for the first time in Scotland’s history due to school closures caused by the pandemic. During his announcement, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills John Swinney said that grades would be based on “coursework, teacher assessments of estimated grades and prior attainment”. The SQA later announced that coursework would not be marked, however. In the months between this announcement and results day, concerns were already being raised by MSP’s about the fairness of how grades would be decided.

On the 4th of August students’ grades were announced and people immediately noticed differences between their estimated grades or prelim grades, and the final grade they were given by the SQA. Some people found themselves with a C grade when they got 79% in the prelim, others failed Advanced Higher despite them having predicted grades at C and getting A’s in their Highers.

It soon became clear that certain groups of people were affected more than others, as is shown by the difference between estimated and given grades across schools from areas with different levels of poverty. In the most deprived 20% of schools, teachers estimated that 85.1% of students would get a passing grade, though only 69.9% ended up getting one; a gap of 15.2%. As we move up the deprivation scale the gap between the estimated and given grades begins to shrink: 12.5% for schools with in the 20-40% SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) bracket, 10.9% for those in the 40-60% bracket , then 9% for the next, and finally a mere 6.9% difference in schools in the least deprived areas of Scotland.

Many students were angered by the basic unfairness of the grade moderation. At short notice a protest was organised outside the SQA offices in Glasgow, which was eventually moved to George Square. Around 100 gathered early on Friday to protest against what they see as discrimination and a contemptuous attitude towards the ability of students from poorer backgrounds. John Swinney announced on the weekend that he has “heard the anger” of school students and will make a statement on Tuesday the 11th.


So how did this happen? A key factor can be found in the SQA 2020 Awarding Methodology Report where it states: “a centre’s 2020 estimated attainment level for each grade was assessed against the centre’s historical attainment for that grade on that course”. This can be seen in the results, as in every deprivation bracket the percentage of students who got a passing grade is closer to the percentage that got one last year than the number that teachers predicted.

This has further enforced the educational divide between the wealthy and working class who, due to their material situation, do not perform as well in education. The lowered grades many students received may prevent some from attending further education and improving their lives, leaving them trapped in poverty. All this while the students from wealthier areas remain largely unaffected and, in some cases, have benefitted from this situation.

Opposition politicians have been quick to criticize the government and SQA. Green MSP Ross Greer has “requested that the SQA appear before Parliament’s Education Committee immediately to justify themselves and their system.” While Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has called the results shambolic and accused the Government of “endorsing a system which has institutionalised the attainment gap in our schools”.

John Swinney has defended the results by saying moderation was needed to prevent a large increase in the number of students getting passing grades. Journalist James McEnaney summed up Swinney’s comments best by saying: “Unless we took action poor kids would have done much better than usual and we didn’t want that.”

Capitalism and educational inequality

Despite the attitude of some critics, this year’s exam results are not just the result of a mistake by the Government and SQA, but rather it is a problem inherent to the capitalist system. In education under capitalism there must always be competition; among students and future workers for grades and jobs, but also between the “good” and “bad” schools. As the educational attainment gap between rich and poor demonstrates however, there is not a level playing field. Pupils from households or local areas in poverty face a severe handicap that limits their success, in spite of their honest efforts, and the SQA has chosen to replicate this status quo.

The class backgrounds of new generations thus determines their future, as the capitalist education system ensures there is a ready supply of exploitable labour — both manual and mental.

The only way to end this inequality in education is to end the system itself. The capitalist economic system must be replaced so that every student will be able to get the best possible education no matter where they live or how wealthy their parents are. The only solution is socialist revolution.