Students hugging after opening exam results

Claim Higher passes are highest since devolution is Mostly True

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

Students in Scotland received their results on Tuesday, and for the second year in a row pupils have been graded without the traditional series of exams due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The assessment system has been a source of controversy since exams were cancelled in 2020. 

In a tweet marking results day, the Scottish Government’s education department made a claim about the number of passes this year at Higher level. 

The number of Higher passes is the highest since Devolution.

Scottish Government tweet

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it Mostly True.


Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, traditional end of year exams in Scotland have been cancelled for the last two years. In 2020, the SQA put in place an alternative system of assessment which was based on teacher judgements, and then adjusted by the historical attainment of the school. 

After claims this penalised pupils from schools in deprived areas with historically lower attainment, the adjustment was scrapped and teacher assessments alone were used.

In 2021, the model was based on teacher assessments, which will not be changed by the SQA.  As the provisional grades must be based on “demonstrated attainment,” pupils must be assessed in each subject. Schools themselves were able to access prior attainment data for “quality assurance”. 

SQA guidance said that “evidence should be gathered under controlled conditions to ensure a degree of equity”. These assessments have been described as “pseudo-exams” by Edinburgh University professor of education policy, Lindsay Paterson.

The 2021 results showed decreases in attainment compared to the previous year, when teacher assessments were used. 

The Scottish Government’s tweet claimed that for Higher pupils, passes were the highest since devolution. 

In 2021, there were 194,661 entries into Higher, of which 169,989 achieved a passing grade. 

This is higher than 2020, when 166,208 passed from 186,214 entries. However in 2021 the pass rate – the percentage of those taking a subject who gained a passing grade – was lower than the previous year, with 87.3 per cent passing compared to 89.3 per cent in 2020. 

The 2021 figure was the highest number of passes in a year since at least 1999. It was the second highest pass rate in that period. 

These statistics should be treated with caution, as direct comparisons to previous years are difficult. This is due to the different ways in which results were assessed in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19.

Results based on teachers’ estimates are likely to be higher than those using the exam model, so it follows that 2020 and 2021 have higher pass rates and total numbers of passes than previous years.

The number of entries into Higher subjects has increased since 1999 by nearly 34,000, and 2021 had among the highest number of entries since devolution.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

The Scottish Government’s tweet is accurate, but leaves out important context. The number of Higher passes is at its highest since devolution, but this is partly due to a different assessment model which does not include end of year examinations, and a higher number of entrants than usual. Using teacher assessments instead is likely one of the chief causes for the significant increase in passes in 2020 and 2021 compared to previous years. The pass rate at Higher level has gone down since 2020. 

Mostly True

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.

All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.

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