Scottish class of 2020's dismay over 'baffling and demoralising' Highers results

Sarah Rodrigues
·5 min read
students finding out results - PA
students finding out results - PA

Scottish students have taken to social media to protest the results of their Highers - announced yesterday - calling them “baffling” and “demoralising”, with around a quarter (124,000) of results thought to have been lowered by the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) due to a national moderation system.

This is the first year since 1888 in which exams in Scotland have been cancelled - thanks of course to Covid-19. Instead, results have been awarded on performance over the academic year, with the schools’ own records taken into account when moderation took place.

As a result, many young people - and their parents - have branded the grading process ‘classist’, with many believing that their results have been adversely affected because they are from less affluent areas.

Eighteen-year-old Darren, from Clydebank, was originally delighted to know that exams were to be cancelled.

“Exams are a huge source of stress for people,”he says, “so I personally was relieved.

“In my circles at least, I think we were thinking along the lines of ‘we’ve been doing well throughout the year, so our grades will be good and we have nothing to worry about’.”

Yet despite consistently getting low As and high Bs in Psychology throughout his course, yesterday Darren was awarded an F.

“I’m definitely going to request a review,,” he says, “but the fact that I got a score like this in the first place baffles me.”

He adds: “I’m taking a writing course at college, so the grade doesn’t affect where I’m going, but it’s really demoralising to have worked so hard all year and then be faced with an F.”

And, as many students are doing online, Darren points out that his result is probably connected to where he lives.

 “I definitely think location is a factor,” he says. “My school is about 240th in Scotland for exam results and passes, so I’m almost certain that it would have been in the range of those that had their grades lowered. It’s unfair that someone gifted can be punished for going to a ‘bad’ school but that someone else can be rewarded simply for going to a ‘good’ one.”

However, Jules, the mother of Elliot, a 17-year-old boy from Bridge of Weir, is not convinced that location was a factor in her son’s disappointing marks.

“Elliot went to a private school,” Jules points out, “and in any case, the local state school is a good one.” Her son’s school plans to appeal his marks in English and Geography, in which his grades were significantly lower than expected.

However, she is still frustrated.  “It means that he will have to achieve certain results to meet the criteria for his university course,” says Jules, “when in normal circumstances he would have achieved that this year.

“The system was ridiculous – and it’s an additional kick in the teeth because he won’t be able to apply to his first choice of university – St Andrews – as they don’t accept results achieved over the course of two years.”

These complaints are being played out across Twitter and Instagram - and, like Darren and Jules,  most students and their families are wary to go on the record in case it affects the outcome of any appeals. 

One 17-year-old student from Aberdeenshire, who goes by the Twitter handle @hiirouii, appealed almost as soon as receiving her results.

“My school was listed quite low on the official ranking,” she explains, “so I think that was a factor. If grades are awarded on how schools have previously performed in exams, then if you’re from a poorer area, you’re going to have limited access to resources and, consequently, lower pass rates.”

With a final grade of C in Art & Design – far below the grade predicted by her teacher – she won’t be able to get into her college of choice as things stand.

“I’m currently discussing my options,” she says. “Luckily, the college is being very supportive and sympathetic.”

Despite the furore, the Equality Impact Assessment, published by SQA on Tuesday tells a different story. According to this paper, attainment across all socio-economic levels was up this year: in the “Most Deprived” groups, 2020 results 69.9% of grades at Higher level were at A-C, up from 65.3% last year, while the “Least Deprived” achieved 84.6%, up from 81.7% last year. The paper also shows that the predictions submitted by teachers from the underprivileged areas tended to be over-estimates: hence the disparity between expected and ultimate grades. It’s worth noting, too, that the grades in the “Least Deprived” group also fell significantly short of estimates.

In any case, many students had cause to celebrate yesterday – as one Twitter user, a self-proclaimed ‘17-year-old Gypsy communist’ from Aberdeen exclaimed: “Local gypsy who grew up on benefits gets 4 As in her Highers.”

Another, Natasha Gills from Saltcoats tweeted: “Hard work pays off!”, with five As at National 5 level. Responding to Tweets from other users, accusing her of being ‘obnoxious’ and ‘upper class’ she replied: “I’m really sad to see that people are attacking me without an understanding of my life. I live in a children’s home and go to a deprived school (ranked 253rd in national rankings) … Maybe this is an example of how sweeping generalisations don’t work in every case.”

Sixth-formers in England and Wales will be watching the drama unfold with grim fascination;  they are bracing themselves to receive A-Level results next week  - and no doubt preparing to tweet.