Shining a light on inequity

I write this article, not with the intention of blame or criticism, but instead in the hope of promoting discussion. As teachers, we risk undermining the (sometimes fragile) trust we have in our profession from pupils, parents and wider society if we reduce ourselves to aimless squabbling and bickering. Instead, now (perhaps more than ever) is a time to galvanise our thoughts and proceed with positivity and optimism so that we learn from the unprecedented factors that have affected teachers and pupils throughout 2020 and suggest changes to ensure there is no similar dissatisfaction during 2021.

The events of the past twenty-four hours in Scottish education cannot be ignored. Tensions will always be high at exam results time, but 2020 has produced something quite different altogether. An outpouring of dismay and bewilderment from pupils, parents and teachers across social media is proof (if anything) that the results this year have most definitely not been as palatable as they ought to be.

With confirmation of the cancellation of examinations prior to the start of lockdown, grade estimates were this year made by teachers based upon prelim and class performance coupled with professional judgement. Estimates were then scrutinised, discussed and interrogated within schools to ensure fairness and equity (at least that was the idea). I, hand on heart, know that I estimated grades for pupils fairly and honestly. I considered the abilities of my pupils holistically to arrive at a true estimate of what (I felt) they would have been able to achieve in the final examination. The grades which I sent to the SQA I have absolute faith in, and I am in no doubt every other teacher in Scotland feels the same way about their estimates. So, how is it then that an estimated 125,000 grades were subsequently lowered by the SQA?

The answer to that question is that teacher estimates were subject to a process of moderation which sought to ensure consistency when measured comparatively with previous examination results. But upon digging into the results (post-moderation) something became very quickly obvious - 15.2% of pupils from the poorest parts of Scotland had their grades downgraded and only 6.9% of pupils from the most affluent parts of Scotland had their grades downgraded.

** I concede that what I have stated above is by no means the entire picture and is without doubt the most attention-grabbing part of the results analysis, but it cannot be overlooked or simply set aside.

For years in Scotland there has been tremendous emphasis placed upon the closing of the “attainment gap”, when in fact there is no attainment gap in Scotland - it simply does not exist! What does exist in Scotland is a ‘poverty-related attainment gap’, something which for far too long has hindered the life-chances and potential of countless young people across the country. This year’s exam results have shone a very bright and uncomfortable light upon this shameful inequity which try as we might, we are nowhere near being able to resolve.

There is no level playing field in Scotland for young people. Geography far too strongly determines opportunity and affluence (if utilised) drives potential. This is a blight on our society and one which teachers fight against tirelessly every day when they try to meet the specific needs of each and every young person in front of them. This year’s exam results are a painful confirmation of the inequity in our society.

But, I refuse to conclude this article negatively. The pupils I teach, I could not be prouder of them and the school I teach at makes an incredible difference to the lives of those who attend; this year’s exam results will not change that - if anything our resolve as a school community will strengthen and we will work even harder (with added determination) to ensure all pupils continue to be treated equally and fairly.

** Now, teachers in Scotland should take the time to reflect, discuss and learn from the lessons of 2020. Inequity in education is inexcusable.

Paul Hamilton


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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

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