NICOLA Sturgeon has defended the SQA appeals process after Douglas Ross claimed the government was “in denial” over the impact on pupils.

The First Minister hit back at the Scottish Tory leader, who appeared via video link as he is self-isolating, during FMQs this afternoon when she was asked if she had full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority. 

It comes after Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced students taking part in this year’s alternative certification model (ACM) would be able to appeal to the exams body for free if they are unhappy with the results.

However, there has been a growing row over the type of appeal model used. The SQA are currently pursuing a symmetrical model, which could see grades be revised up or down, while there are calls for a "no detriment" model to be introduced, where appeals can only be upgraded. 

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The First Minister defended the SQA’s plans in Holyrood yesterday and said that the appeals process in place was the “fairest way of proceeding”. 

Asked if she had full confidence in the SQA, the First Minister said she did and added: “I think it is important that I and the government recognise first of all that this is a really anxious and a really difficult time for pupils and indeed for their parents across the country, so it’s really important that we and indeed the SQA continue to listen. 

“We are doing our utmost to deliver fair grades in what are very difficult circumstances. I will try if there are further questions on this today to answer all of the questions as clearly as possible because scrutiny and understanding is really important, and I’m going to try and stay away from partisan politics. 

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“Not least because many of the arrangements we are putting in place are very similar to those being put in place in England and in Wales under governments of all parties, and I think that reflects the fact that this is a difficult situation.”

Ross continued to probe the First Minister on the qualifications authority and quoted a member of the Glasgow Youth Council who had said the Scottish Government is “clearly in denial” of the impact of this years grading system on pupils.

In response, Sturgeon said: “I don’t agree with that, but it’s my duty to persuade young people and their parents across the country that while no government can take away all of the impacts of a global pandemic on our young people, this government working with teachers, with local authorities, with representatives of pupils and parents, and of course with the SQA, is doing everything we can in a highly challenging set of circumstances to deliver fairness for pupils, and that work will continue.”

The First Minister then explained that the alternative certification model was developed by the National Qualifications Group with input from teachers, pupils and parents, and that the government will continue to listen to young people. 

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Sturgeon added that the SQA had also introduced a September 3 extension for those who have suffered bereavement or severe disruption to their learning, if they are unlikely to have all their evidence gathered in time for the June 25 deadline. 

The Tory leader responded by hitting out, he said: “The First Minister won’t agree with young people, instead in her own words to try and explain to them and persuade them that they’re wrong. That is absolutely appalling from a First Minister who is unwilling to listen to criticisms of her government and their handling of this fiasco from the young people who have been most affected.”

However, Sturgeon was quick to quip back and put Ross in his place. She said: “Can I say firstly I think what is appalling is for Douglas Ross to mischaracterise what I’ve said. 

“I did not say it was the government's job to persuade young people that they were wrong. What I said is the government’s job is to engage with young people, yes to seek to persuade that the arrangements that are in place are the right ones but to listen as we go. 

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“So, for example, it’s because we’ve listened to young people that there is a fundamentally different system in place this year. Not one based on algorithms but one based on teacher judgement informed by the attainment and work that young people have done.”

Sturgeon also explained that downgrading grades is “exceptionally rare” and cited previous statistics that in 2019 of over 11,000 appeals only two were downgraded, and in 2018 out of 13,000 appeals, seven were downgraded.