10 August 2020

One of the worst education policies in years – so why do the SNP support it?

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As even the SNP’s diehard fans turn on the party and Nicola Sturgeon, what exactly is happening with school grades in Scotland?

The scandal is grew out from coronavirus. Because normal schooling and exam procedures have been so disrupted this year, it was deemed that exam results (which for those who couldn’t sit them were determined by teachers’ estimates, based on their performance over the school year) required moderation to make them fairer – and, handily, to combat the ever feared spectre of grade inflation at the same time. Arguable goals, but even if you do agree with the principles behind the the adjustment policy, there is little debate that the implementation by the exam boards has been catastrophic – well, except if you are Nicola Sturgeon, who has tried to defend it.

First, the results: the higher pass rate of pupils in the most deprived areas was reduced by 15.2% from original teacher estimates, while the higher pass rate for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds dropped by 6.9%. Given how it is already established knowledge that teachers are more likely to underestimate poorer students and overestimate wealthier students, this result is not just damaging for social justice, but contrary to what we would have expected scientifically. How could the exam board have arrived at such counter-intuitive results? Apparently, their criteria included the “historic performance of schools”. Ah.

No matter how you slice it, that is objectively a dumb criterion, and obviously a socially regressive one. We are no longer judging the individual achievements of students on their own merit, but we judge them by what school they went to. Pupils from wealthier postcodes with better performing schools will be favoured. But pupils who outperform their poorer local schools will be “put back in their place”. That makes a mockery of the promise of education as the surest way to attain upward social mobility.

The only surprising thing is that anyone would defend what happened. It would have been trivially easy for Sturgeon and the Scottish government to distance themselves from the operational decisions taken by the exam board, and to demand either the wholesale removal of the moderation process as it stands, or its reform from the ground up on sounder principles. Instead, the SNP have taken the baffling decision to defend the moderation process as it stands, as well as its results, on the grounds that it succeeds at countering grade inflation.

Okay, so let us think a bit more about grade inflation. It is already known, for example, that average IQ scores have been going up for at least a century: it’s called the Flynn effect. It is also the case that we have been investing in education, honing our teaching methods and tailoring our teaching towards exam performance for decades now. Why is anyone surprised that grades averages in standardised exams are going up? That is exactly what you should be expecting considering both the IQ trends and the expected effects of our education policies. Exam grade averages should be going up!

If your problem is that kids now have too many top grades and we do not know how to differentiate between them for jobs and university admissions, then perhaps it is time to make tests harder, test more advanced topics, or challenge young people to demonstrate their abilities in ways other than the standardised tests we have been using. The absolutely worst thing to do is post hoc adjustments to grades pupils already earned fairly, and then adjust them down if they went to a historically poor school. That is just crazy.

A lot of the time, the way we discuss the SNP and what they do is through the prism of our respective positions on Scottish independence. But here, for once, we can separate our views on independence from the issue of what the SNP are doing in government. Sturgeon herself has asked that she be judged on her record on education. And in her choice to defend and double down on this national travesty, we can judge her very harshly indeed. That England and Wales appear, bizarrely, to be following a similar path is greatly worrying. They should learn the lesson of Scotland’s miserable experience.

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Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College and a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.