Graeme Downie says the SQA exam debacle this year was entirely predictable, and asks why Scottish Labour was not prepared and featured as part of the story.

There was criticism levelled at broadcasters yesterday that in the wake of the SQA exam debacle opposition parties were not featured. Although some of this criticism might be justified, if you want to be a part of a major story you have to prepare months, not hours, in advance.

In any political time there are certain days when you know there is going to be political news and journalists looking for relevant responses. Often outlets will decide in advance who they will be going to for comment, what they are going to say and how it will add to the story. It is this last bit that presents the problem for opposition parties, because any response they come up with quickly is likely to just sound like “they screwed up” rather than adding any new dimension, alternative or solution. For opposition politicians looking to respond there is another problem – people don’t want to just hear from one politician after another.

The way around this for Labour is to make sure they are not caught trying to come with a quick response to a story at all, but have made themselves relevant in advance with a clear and proactive message of their own. For that you need a long-term, coordinated policy and communications plan so you know what hot spots you are going to pick during the year and you have time to develop a positive solution or alternative and become identified with it. You have to earn your right to be part of a story, it is not granted just because you are a politician or political party.

Yes, the Covid pandemic has been all-consuming, but it was entirely predictable that exam results day was going to be critical and unlikely to go well for the Scottish Government, creating a huge opportunity for Labour. First, exams results are always controversial. Second, the SNP has made closing the attainment gap a priority but made little progress. Third, as well as statistics to create infographics there will be a multitude of case studies available to highlight your messages through video and image content. Finally, the circumstances ensured it would have political cut-through for a broad demographic.

The minute the Scottish Government announced the cancellation of exams, results day should have had a huge red circle around it in every Scottish Labour communications and policy planning grid. It was at that moment that Labour should have made school reform a priority, and particularly assessment reform. They should have begun talking about it then and not stopped. At a local, regional and national level, the party had to create a sense of anticipating a problem and preparing a solution. It is not like the internet wasn’t awash with clever people highlighting problems and possible solutions. Were the party talking to these people and bringing in these new voices?

If Labour had begun to take these steps and made sure journalists knew this was a party priority and that activity was taking place then they could have begun to play a part in the story in the days and weeks leading up to it, taking control of an agenda so often dictated by the governing party. Only then would they have earned the right to help shape the narrative on the day.

It is not enough in opposition to wait for governments to fail. You have to be seen as a credible alternative and on people’s side. There will have been a lot of frustrated and angry people yesterday, a lot of them younger people about to be able to vote for the first time in 2021 and who as a demographic are more likely to vote for the SNP. That’s not to mention their parents. Labour need to provide those people, wronged by the Scottish Government, with somewhere to take their anger. We need to be on their side and be seen to be on their side.

I do not pretend any of this is easy. It requires leadership, long-term commitment, prioritising maybe three or four issues or days a year and working towards them in the background. It’s a thankless task with little praise or glory. You will also often be wrong and your approach won’t work or the government won’t screw up, but that is the nature of opposition the world over. The alternative is to do none of those things and let the agenda continue to move on from government failure to government failure, simply asking “Why won’t the people vote for us?”.

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26 thoughts on “A notable absence

  1. Nail on head:

    “The way around this for Labour is to make sure they are not caught trying to come with a quick response to a story at all, but have made themselves relevant in advance with a clear and proactive message of their own”

    This applies to everything, Labour have been sorely missing a clear and proactive message of their own for quite some time – SNPBad doesn’t win voters it hemorrhages them

  2. Exam results are always a “debacle”, no matter what the outcomes. If the results are lower than the previous year -> standards are falling; if they are higher than last year -> exams are getting easier; if they stay largely the same -> it’s a failure to improve. This time, with the exceptional circumstances, it’s s free-form-all of negativity despite a rise in passes. I doubt any govt of any hue would have done much, if anything, differently.

  3. As a secondary teacher, I fully understand the system used to assess pupils this year and actually think the SQA has done an excellent job in the circumstances. Of course the media always try to spin a negative story whatever the news but we would all of been delighted had these results been produced by the exam system rather than the special assessment system used this year. Think about it – overall pass rates have increased for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, with the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged closing. Good results in anyone’s language.

    1. But not good results for the individual student working harder at a school in a poorer area than those who got better grades at a school in a richer area.

      The overall stats look great. The individual experiences look utterly awful. That’s the point.

      1. Yet the differences between the most and least deprived pupils shrank this year so could you engage your giant brain and explain why differences between most and least deprived pupils could shrink whilst some of those poorer pupils were somehow being discriminated against?

        I entered pupils for various exams ( I taught and entered pupils for various examinations (Internally generated school certificates, CSE, O Grade, S Grade at all 3 levels, Higher, Advanced Higher and CSYS) over a 37 year period. I set prelim and internally generated final exam papers, marked prelims, drew up orders of merit, decided upon and administered appeals to SEB, SCEEB, SQA and other bodies.

        Given that experience I see this year’s arrangements as being perfectly logical and rational responses to the limits imposed by the Covid 19 epidemic.

      2. Hi Duncan, normally about 65% pass from the schools that cater for those who live in the most deprived areas and teachers estimated an 85% pass rate this year. If the SQA had accepted those estimates automatically, opposition parties would be attacking the government for inflating the results beyond what was reasonable. The SQA has awarded passes to almost 70% and will allow appeals where teachers can submit evidence to justify grades being improved. That seems fair all round.

      3. How do you know that an individual student at a school in a poorer area was working harder than pupils getting better grades at a school in a richer area? Do you have evidence to suggest that pupils in schools in richer areas were not working at least as hard for the grades they got?

      4. And just would you have improved it Duncan? Weightings perhaps maybe, but where does the tinkering end?

        “SQA exam debacle”, really, given the circumstances?

  4. What we know is that affluence has an influence on educational outcomes, and poverty drives down children’s outcomes. It is incredibly difficult to impact this–it happens world wide and with governments of all stripes.
    I would lower higher education subsidies and pour money into early education, but then some countries leave education until later childhood, so what do I know?
    Perhaps we should just dump the SQA and just allow children access to higher education when they are mature enough to benefit–because I think we all learn at different rates and at different ages. I would have accessable modules on each and every subject available for all. The best teachers, the most relevant tech knowledge—changing yearly, because some stuff gets dated quickly.

  5. This debacle was an accident waiting to happen, as Lindsay Paterson outlined in The Times.
    As a retired teacher and now a Chief Invigilator, I think the decision to cancel exams was misguided. Were school leaders asked their opinion by the Scottish government? It would have been possible to prioritise exam candidates by keeping S4-6 pupils in school and sending those in S1-3 home. Exam centres could have then adapted their exam spaces to allow social distancing and ensured the relevant staff and invigilators were supplied with the necessary PPE to operate the exam diet.
    Labour could have promoted this solution at the time.

  6. Pupils in England are allowed to challenge their results I predict that Scottish Government will debate and do likewise

    1. Pupils in Scotland are allowed to do so too. That rather misses the point. There is evidence of widespread and systemic unfairness in the methodology.

      1. The thing that bug’s me is that some teachers might have a tendency to give pupils lower mark’s just because they don’t like them ie behavioural issues and unconscious bias.

  7. Why is it the Scottish govt in the dock here and not the teachers who have clearly given massively overhyped grades to their pupils? Are we to believe that the class of 2020 are a spontaneous generation of “wunderkind” …. after years of average results beforehand? To have accepted the results as they were given by teachers would have rendered everybody’s results worthless. Worthless to universities, worthless to employers and, subsequently, worthless to the kids.

    I believe the SQA have done a good job in exceptional circumstances while the Scottish govt are bending over backwards for kids who feel hard done by. I’ve heard nothing from any critics about how things could have been done differently. All we have is opportunistic political point scoring. Maybe that’s why the real culprits, dishonest teachers, are getting off scot free.

    1. Blaming teachers. How absolutely on brand for you, given that your entire schtick on here is angry pig ignorance.

      1. Sorry Duncan, I can accept that you don’t agree with Mr. Pony and some of his points, but as yet throughout this thread you have offered no “improvements” to the process carried out by the SQA as far as I can see.

        Could you perhaps now enlighten Mr. Pony and others?

        1. As I’ve said elsewhere, the methodology was flawed because it did not make adjustments based on individual students’ work, but on historical outcomes from those schools. Meaning that an individual who had worked hard to overcome the barriers they faced through poverty or chaotic home life or any other hindrance to academic achievement was penalised anyway, through absolutely no fault of their own. No downgrading should have been done with reference to the work of each individual affected. That’s what should have been different. And frankly I’d have thought that should be blindingly obvious. I hope Mr Swinney will be announcing some such correction to the flawed process when he makes his statement tomorrow.

          This episode has really highlighted better than anything else the vacuous, thought-free, knee-jerk approach of so many nationalists in supporting the SNP whatever they do because independence trumps everything. I have some hope that finally, after all this time, people are beginning to see it.

      2. I was a teacher for 38 years and teachers giving unrealistically high estimates for pupils wouldn’t surprise me in the least. That’s why various exam boards in Scotland and England has substantial moderating systems.

  8. Cheers Duncan. Barring more unwarranted abuse, can you explain how kids who were getting broadly average grades throughout their academic career suddenly became “straight A” student’s? Neither the Scottish govt nor the SQA have them those inflated grades.

      1. I beg to differ but can you answer the question?

        If every pupil got the grade their teacher awarded them, the results for the entire 2020 class would have been rendered worthless.

        Fair enough, the term “dishonest” was perhaps too harsh. Maybe “misguided” would have been better. None-the-less, teachers inflated the results; not the SQA or Scottish govt. That’s just a fact.

        1. It’s an ignorance you appear to share though. On 11/8 you posted;

          “I was a teacher for 38 years and teachers giving unrealistically high estimates for pupils wouldn’t surprise me in the least. That’s why various exam boards in Scotland and England has substantial moderating systems”.

          That more than implies you agree teachers were to blame for the inflated initial grades and that the moderating was necessary to counter this. My point exactly.

          You agree with me on one post then claim my view is “ignorant” on the next. A lack of consistency there.

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