Scottish exam grades

FFS explains: how were Scottish pupils’ final grades decided?

Scottish school pupils received their grades for this year without sitting any spring exams for the first time since 1888 due to the coronavirus pandemic

The system of awarding grades has led to controversy as many pupils felt theirs had been unfairly adjusted.

Ferret Fact Service examined the issue.

How did we get here?

End of year examinations were deemed not possible due to the closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic, so an alternative system was developed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to give pupils their grades for the year.

The body announced in April that coursework at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher level, would not be marked due to coronavirus restrictions.

Instead, teacher estimates were used as the basis for working out pupils’ results. The estimates of grade and band were then moderated by the SQA using a methodology based on the historical performance of the school.

This was criticised before results were released by campaigners and politicians who said the system would penalise pupils from lower performing schools and those schools achieving rapid improvement in attainment.

Teachers were told to make estimates based on a pupil’s “demonstrated and inferred attainment of the required skills, knowledge and understanding”. This did not require setting any additional homework or conducting mock exams. This involved teachers reviewed existing coursework, together with an assessment of the pupil’s progression and performance.

The SQA stated a teacher’s grade recommendation should be “based on a holistic review of a learner’s performance in the assessment evidence available”.

It has been the moderation of teacher estimates that has caused confusion and controversy.

How were final grades decided by the SQA?

The SQA took the estimates by teachers and applied a system of moderation which, it said, would “ensure consistency across schools and colleges and with results from previous years”.

The SQA used historical data to see whether the estimates aligned with a school’s performance in previous years.

Attainment this year – based entirely on estimates from teachers – would have been significantly higher than in 2019. National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher pupils were more likely to receive an A to C grade than in previous years.

Pass rates for A to C were 10.4 points higher at National 5, 14 points higher at Higher, and 13.4 percentage points higher at Advanced Higher since 2019.

The SQA did not “draw definitive conclusions” from the difference, but decided that some form of central moderation was required.

A range of acceptable grades was developed, based on historical school attainment in each course. This meant there was a maximum and minimum pass rate for each school in each subject – but with some flexibility built-in to account for changes each year.

If a school had no historical data, then the SQA accepted the teacher’s estimates. If a school’s estimates fell outside of the range of grades they were adjusted in moderation.

How did estimates compare to results?

Around a quarter of teacher estimates were adjusted – affecting 133,762 grades. Of these, 93.1 per cent were adjusted down.

Of the adjusted grades, 96.1 per cent were adjusted by one grade, while 45,454 entries – 8.9 per cent – fell from between grades A–C to a grade D or no award (Fail).

The difference between the estimates and final moderated grades was significant, and meant that thousands of pupils estimated to attain A to C grades ended up not getting them.

Overall, attainment was still up on previous years after the grades were adjusted.

The difference in attainment between those from the poorest and wealthiest areas of Scotland was smaller than in the previous four years at Advanced Higher and National 5, and it stayed around the same at Higher level.

These statistics do not include colleges and independent schools, accounting for around 45,000, as the SQA says it does not hold this data.

How were children from deprived areas affected?

Controversy surrounds the way adjustment was done primarily using historical school data.

This meant students from Scotland’s most deprived areas (according to SIMD data) likely found their grades adjusted down because their school had historically lower attainment rates.

For those sitting National 5 in the most deprived 20 per cent of Scottish areas, the percentage achieving A-C grades went from 84.5 per cent to 74 per cent after adjustment. For the least deprived 20 per cent, the adjustment was from 92.3 per cent to 87.1 per cent.

The difference was most pronounced at at Higher level, where the adjustment was from 85.1 per cent to 69.9 per cent for the most deprived, and from 91.5 per cent to 84.6 per cent for the least deprived

For those sitting Advanced Higher, 91.4 per cent of those from the most deprived areas were estimated an A-C grade, but this fell to 80.6 per cent after adjustment. The least deprived 20 per cent fell from 94.1 per cent to 86.8 per cent.

The SQA statistics deprivation data is from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2016 (SIMD).

What can students do?

Those who have seen their grade adjusted can go through the appeals process, which is free.

This can be done by a school, if a pupil is awarded a grade lower than their teacher’s estimate.

An appeal must provide evidence that the appealing pupil was “performing at the level of estimate grade.”

This evidence could include pupil’s class or coursework either completed or partially completed, and will be passed on to an SQA examiner, who will review the evidence along with other evidence such as unmarked coursework submitted before the exams were cancelled.

A pupil may then be awarded a higher grade, have their grade stay the same, or get a lower grade (in very rare cases).

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. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to, email us at or join our Facebook group.

Correction: This fact check article has been updated on 10 August 2020 to clarify that the statistics do not necessarily show that deprived students were more likely to be adjusted down.

1 comment
  1. My sons school is 86% SIMD , They didn’t publish last years results, on target but marked down for 2/3. The results he received say it all.

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