School pupils’ pass rates fall in Scotland for Highers and National 5s

Pass rates for Scottish pupils have fallen significantly after schools returned to using exams to grade performance for the first time since 2019.

This year’s results showed the overall pass rate for Highers, heavily used for students aiming for university, fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 78.9%. The pass rate for National 5s, awarded largely to 16-year-olds, fell from a peak of 89% in 2020 to 80.8%.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority said the fall marked the end of teacher-led grading of performance after exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 during the Covid crisis, with a return this year to pre-pandemic exams and external marking.

The SQA added that, despite that shift, pass rates were up compared with 2019, the last year involving formal exams. In 2019, the pass rate for National 5s was 78.2% and for Highers 74.8%. Students were given extra support this year, and a “generous” approach taken to grading because of the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, with grade thresholds lowered for a majority of topics.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland’s education secretary, said she was confident that this year’s approach had produced “a credible, consistent and fair set of results for our young people”.

“This is one of the strongest ever sets of results for any exam year, which is particularly impressive given the significant challenges learners have faced as a result of the pandemic,” she said.

The shift back to exams also had the effect of greatly decreasing pass rates for children from Scotland’s most deprived communities compared with teacher-based grades during the pandemic, lowering their chances of entering university.

SQA data showed the number of Higher A grades awarded to pupils from the most disadvantaged areas fell by more than a third from 35.8% in 2021, when grading was teacher-led, to 22.1% this year. Nonetheless, that was an increase on 2019, when 16.7% of most-deprived pupils achieved A grades.

By comparison, 45.3% of pupils from the most privileged parts of Scotland achieved As this year, compared with 57.8% in 2021 and 38.7% in 2019. Somerville said her government was investing £1bn in raising attainment. “We know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted learners from more disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said.

The assessment process in 2020, at the height of the Covid crisis, was marred by a controversy over the Scottish government’s and SQA’s handling of marking.

John Swinney, Somerville’s predecessor as education secretary, faced a no-confidence vote and was forced to reinstate 120,000 teacher-assessed results, which had been downgraded by the SQA. The agency is being scrapped and replaced by 2024, as part of reforms induced by the controversy.

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, said these results masked “system-wide problems” because schools were working to a reduced curriculum, post-Covid, which meant there had been a “significant loss of learning and knowledge across Scotland’s education system”.

He said the reversion to exam grading by ministers also penalised the poorest pupils, while cutting funding to local councils across Scotland.

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“This SNP administration has dramatically cut funding to the poorest communities in Scotland and we are years away from any substantive reform,” Marra said. “They have no plan, no leadership and their continued failings in this work are a rolling national scandal.”

Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, said pupils and staff had achieved great results in very difficult circumstances; she said most pupils had never sat formal exams before, because of the Covid crisis.

“Teachers have consistently risen to the challenge in order to ensure the best possible outcomes for young people,” Bradley added. “The return to an exam diet this year was needlessly rushed, arguably a backward step, and has been an additional stressor to teachers and students alike.”

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