Sturgeon: I would 'very possibly' have joined in protest against my own exams policy

Dan Sanderson
·5-min read
Nicola Sturgeon ruled out a u-turn - AFP/AFP
Nicola Sturgeon ruled out a u-turn - AFP/AFP

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of hypocrisy after admitting she “very possibly” would have joined in protests against her own exams policy, had it affected her while she was at school.

The First Minister, who is under mounting pressure over a results day “debacle” which saw 124,000 grades arbitrarily downgraded, said she would have felt “aggrieved” if her own results had been reduced under a system put in place on her watch.

Pupils from the poorest parts of Scotland were more than twice as likely to see their Highers grade lowered than those from the richest areas, under a “moderation” process brought in following the cancellation of this year’s exam diet due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Teengagers angry at the way they have been judged are planning to hold a protest outside the SQA offices in Glasgow on Friday.

At Ms Sturgeon’s former school, Greenwood Academy in Ayrshire, the proportion of children obtaining five passes at Higher was just 23 per cent last year, well below the national average of 28.7 per cent. It suggests high-performing pupils there would have been among those likely to have their awards downgraded, as the SQA’s formula relies heavily on past results at individual schools.

Asked at her daily briefing whether her younger self would have been among the teenagers joining the protests, had her grades been downgraded for no other reason than her school’s historic performance, she said: “very possibly”.

The First Minister added: “If you’re a young person whose teacher has estimated one grade, and you’ve got a lower grade, you’re going to feel very aggrieved about that. I absolutely understand that and if I had been in that position, I would feel aggrieved about that.

“It’s not just my old school, it’s the current school of my own niece, although she didn’t sit exams, she’s not quite at that stage yet. So I know how really horrible this will be for young people in this position.”

Ms Sturgeon encouraged teenagers unhappy with their results to appeal, but ruled out a u-turn that would see her order the SQA to award grades in line with teacher recommendations. The Scottish Government has said the moderation process was necessary, as had it not been in place, awards would have been vastly inflated, lessening their credibility.

She said: “I don’t think that would be the right thing to do either. If there have been, as I’m sure there will have been, circumstances where a grievance a young person feels is legitimate, then that will be rectified through the appeal process.”

However, Ms Sturgeon’s critics said her admission that she would have considered protesting against her own policy showed her defence of it was not credible.

John Swinney, the education secretary, is once again under fire - Pool/Reuters
John Swinney, the education secretary, is once again under fire - Pool/Reuters

Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish Secretary, said the First Minister risked becoming known as the “grade snatcher”.

He added: “Margaret Thatcher was known as the milk snatcher for stealing primary pupils’ milk in the 1970s, but Ms Sturgeon is stealing children’s futures.

“She has failed a generation of young Scots, and her defence of the system’s inequality reveals that education is far from her number one priority. 

“Having admitted she may have protested against this policy if she was a youngster herself, her defence is no longer credible. She must take full responsibility and fix this injustice."

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, added: “To say she would have protested if someone had done this to her when she was at school might be meant to sound like empathy, but to say it, then double down on defending the SQA, is just hypocrisy.”

It emerged on Thursday that education chiefs from the SQA are to be hauled before Holyrood’s education committee to be questioned about the controversial system.

A protest on Friday, outside the SQA’s Glasgow Offices, has been organised by Erin Bleakley, a 17-year-old, who said she hopes it will highlight how pupils living in areas of high deprivation were disproportionately impacted by marks being downgraded.

Data published by the SQA shows that Higher pass rate among pupils from the most deprived postcode areas had been downgraded by 15.2 percentage points, compared with 6.9 points in the most affluent.

Miss Bleakley, who attends St Andrew's high school in Carntyne, Glasgow, where more than 80 per cent of pupils are classed as living in a severely deprived area, claimed pupils’ hard work was being “wiped out” by their postcodes.

She said: "Requesting teachers to use their professional judgment based on a combination of previous work, prelims and other test results along with their knowledge of each particular student should have been robust enough assessment.

"To sweepingly override them undermines both the work put in by the pupils and the trust in teachers as professionals."

Miss Bleakley said she has little faith in the appeals system. She added: "Yes, this is an unprecedented situation but colleges and universities have a responsibility to ensure fair access to further and higher education.

"It is widely recognised that young people in areas of deprivation already have to work harder than most and in a situation such as a pandemic it is hugely unfair to penalise them especially before the appeals."