Pupils attending schools in the north-east’s most-deprived areas were around six times more likely to have their Higher results lowered than those in the most affluent as a result of the exams scandal.
The 2019/20 exam diet was cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and education chiefs tasked the SQA with awarding grades using teacher estimates and a moderation system.
However, the results sparked outrage after it emerged pupils from more deprived backgrounds had their results more harshly moderated than their counterparts from more affluent areas.
That sparked a major U-turn, with grades revised to reflect teacher estimates alone.
Now a new study has revealed the extent of the disparity between the richest and poorest schools in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.
In the city, pupils in the poorest areas were more than six times more likely to have their results downgraded from a pass to a fail by the SQA, which is a Scottish Government body.
At Robert Gordon’s College, just 3.2% of pupils teachers recommended to pass were failed – but at Lochside Academy, that figure rose to 20%.
Almost 40% of all teachers’ estimates at Lochside were lowered, compared to just under 15% at Robert Gordon’s.
In Aberdeenshire, pupils at Banff Academy teachers said should pass were nearly 10 times more likely to fail than those at Mackie Academy.
The study was carried out by Barry Black, a researcher at Glasgow University and a former pupil of St Machar Academy in Aberdeen where around 15% of those teachers estimated would pass were given fail grades.
He said: “This analysis shows – in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire – as in the rest Scotland, that schools with higher levels of deprivation were more likely to be negatively impacted on average by the statistical model used to determine exam results this year.
“This is because the model primarily used the prior attainment of schools to moderate grades. Schools with higher levels of deprivation are significantly more likely to have had poorer attainment in the past. The moderation process essentially graded the school’s performance and not individual pupils.
“These larger trends were already known, but this analysis shows us in much more detail the impact of the model on different schools, leading to a situation where we see vast differences across the city – with the schools which have the most deprived cohorts of pupils, on average, being the worst impacted.”
Across Scotland, around 75,000 pupils were issued with new grades after the U-turn by ministers.
Nationwide, pupils from schools in the most-deprived areas were around four times more likely to have pass grades turned into fails than their counterparts at private institutions.
An SQA spokesman said: “We do not believe the methodology here is robust. The overall position shows clearly that local authority schools saw proportionately more upgrades than independent schools through moderation. In local authority schools, 1.85% of entries were moderated upwards and in independent schools, it was 0.79%.
“Following the cancellation of the 2020 exams, SQA was commissioned by the Scottish Government to develop an alternative certification model, based on teacher and lecturer estimates, to maintain standards over time. Given the estimates we received, we considered some moderation of teacher estimates was necessary, however almost three-quarters of estimates were unchanged. Every school and college was in scope for moderation and all were treated in the same way. Data was anonymised throughout this process.
“The Equality Impact Assessment included a statistical analysis of available data from 2016 onwards based on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). It demonstrates that, after moderation, there was an increase in attainment for those learners living in Scotland’s most deprived areas and a narrowing of the attainment gap between those in the most deprived and least deprived SIMD bandings compared with previous years. So what this analysis fails to show is that attainment levels rose and the attainment gap narrowed even after moderation.
“Following the Ministerial direction issued to SQA on 11 August, the results generated by this approach have been replaced by school and college estimates. The Deputy First Minister has set out the measures for the delivery of qualifications in the 2020 to 2021 session and SQA is now focused on taking that work forward.”
A spokeswoman for Robert Gordon’s College commented: “Exam years are always stressful, but this year pupils across the country have had to face obstacles more than any have before.
“Schools had to adapt to a new framework for learning, teaching and the examination process throughout this pandemic.
“The findings from this report vary for schools where the published percentages are higher for those with a smaller number of pupils sitting Higher examinations. At Robert Gordon’s College there were 829 S5 Higher presentations with an A-C pass rate of 98.4%.
“The pass to fail adjustments published impact C-D results which vary from school to school. In closely following the SQA guidance, with its strong emphasis on an evidence-based approach, we worked hard to ensure our estimates were in line with our historical averages.
“Our staff showed exceptional professionalism in adjusting to these changes in the assessment process and were able to document the evidence base robustly. We remain very proud of what our pupils have achieved.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has been urged to learn from the debacle and ensure plans are put in place in case future exam schedules are disrupted.
Scottish Conservative north-east MSP Liam Kerr said: “The SNP’s handling of this year’s exams was an insult to teachers and detrimental to pupils across Aberdeen – none more so than at schools such as Lochside, Northfield and St Machar.
“It is unforgivable that John Swinney signed off a process which knowingly disadvantaged our future generation.
“This decision was inexcusable and put futures in jeopardy while having implications on mental health.
“Parents, pupils and teachers across the city need to be given cast-iron assurances that this year’s mess will not be repeated.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “No pupil in Scotland now has results based on the previous methodology.
“Following the release of results on 4 August, the Deputy First Minister announced that all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and directed the SQA to re-issue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement, or SQA moderated teacher and lecturer estimates where these were higher.
“We accepted that the risk of undermining the value of qualifications was outweighed by a concern that young people, particularly from less advantaged backgrounds, may have been adversely affected.
“We will look to learn lessons from the process to awarding qualifications this year that will help to inform any future actions. However, it is still noteworthy that the original SQA results showed a smaller attainment gap than was the position in 2019 and the re-issued results represent a smaller gap still.”