Outcome not income: grades should not be a postcode lottery


A government U-turn on a policy that disproportionately negatively affected students in low income areas shows the distance our education system has to go to be a true meritocracy.

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Image by The Independent

By Ally Smith

On August 04, Scottish students received their grades. While some students got what they were expecting, thousands were surprised when their teacher predicted grades had been lowered. Over 124,564 results were downgraded after the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) “checked and validated” teacher assessments alongside schools’ previous performances. It was feared by some that the method of estimation for grades in lieu of exams would disproportionately impact students from deprived areas and perpetuate inequalities. Prior to results being released, the SQA said that this was not the case. Sadly, the facts disagreed: in the Highers, students from deprived backgrounds had their pass rate decreased by 15.2 per cent and those from the wealthiest background only lost 6.9 per cent.

Rightly so, students were outraged and, in an incredible turn of events, the Scottish government heard their anger and have done a very speedy U-turn on the policy. While it is heartening to hear Nicola Sturgeon say she is not going to do what politicians normally do and “dig their heels in”, the Scottish government (and indeed the UK government too) needs to do so much more to create a genuinely equitable playing field in education. I say equitable rather than equal because what this rollercoaster Scottish students have experienced illustrates the much deeper issues in our education systems that have not been addressed.

Both the Scottish and UK governments have been quick to argue that they are trying to maintain fairness and ensure no group is negatively impacted more than others as a result of COVID-19. What they’ve failed to realise is that the systems they used that led to the postcode lottery for grades re-entrenches the disparities in educational attainment. The attainment gap between children from poorer families and wealthier families has been growing for the last two years and in refusing to acknowledge this in the preparation for results day during COVID-19, both governments have let down students who have worked incredibly hard.

Unlike Scottish students, however, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t have Nicola Sturgeon to hold her hands up and admit when something went wrong. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson went from claiming that the system is “robust” and fair, to admitting that bright pupils may be penalised by the system in roughly a day, but is still maintaining that the system was created to ensure “maximum fairness” and is refusing to follow in Scottish footsteps. While I wish this behaviour came as a surprise, the continued failing of disadvantaged students in this country is not a new occurrence. We even saw similar mindsets at our own University not too long ago when students without the technological equipment necessary to study and take exams from home were advised to take a leave of absence.

COVID-19 has thrown everyone into disarray but it would be silly to say that everyone has experienced the lockdown at similar disadvantages. Students that had spacious homes with good wifi and a laptop of their own experienced a completely different lockdown to students that had to share a bedroom, a laptop and workspace with siblings, had to care for a parent, or who had to continue working in frontline jobs to make sure electricity stayed on.

Results day is stressful enough without knowing that your hard work is going to be overwritten by an unfair system of grading, and I hope that the UK government sees sense soon and remedies the problem they have caused.