The Irish Times view on the Scottish exams debacle: There may be trouble ahead

Authorities here have time to learn from Scotland’s experience. Students from disadvantaged areas must not be unduly penalised

There is little governments fear more than the public wrath of articulate parents, social media-savvy students and angry teachers. The furore over the use of calculated grades in Scotland – a system very similar to that being used in Ireland – may well be a warning shot of what to expect when results are provided to Leaving Cert students here in the coming weeks.

The downgrading of almost 125,000 students' results based on teachers' predictions sparked major controversy in Scotland. Pupils in the poorest areas had been marked down the most, which prompted a public outcry, an apology from first minister Nicola Sturgeon and swift reversal of all downgrades. In England, where it is reported that up to 40 per cent of students face being downgraded, the education minister announced last-minute changes to allow students appeal the results based on their past performance in mock exams.

Fairness and equity need to be at the heart of our approach on this

Could the same happen here? Minister for Education Norma Foley has moved to reassure thousands of Leaving Cert students that our calculated grades system will be "accurate, reliable and fair to all students". However, the Irish system shares many features at the heart of those in Scotland and England: teachers' estimated grades are adjusted during a national standarisation process which takes into account a school's track record.

Even before this controversy, research in the UK indicated that teachers in the vast majority of cases over-predict students’ grades. Among high-achieving students, applicants from low-income homes are more likely to have their grades under-predicted compared with those from high-income ones. There is no compelling reason to think this will be any different in Ireland.


Authorities here now have the time to learn from Scotland. They must ensure students from disadvantaged areas are not unduly penalised. Fairness and equity need to be at the heart of our approach. The system will also need a level of oversight to ensure humans, rather than algorithms, determine how students succeed. Otherwise, all indications are that complaints, campaigns, appeals and judicial reviews lie ahead.