FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has defended the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) over a moderation process that reduced the pass rate of the poorest Higher pupils by more than twice that of the richest.

She argued the system helped to maintain the “credibility” of results.

The pass rate of pupils in the most deprived data zones was reduced by 15.2% from teacher estimates after the exam board’s moderation.

In contrast, the pass rate for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds dropped by 6.9%.

The First Minister said that without the moderation, a 19.8% increase of the pass rate among the poorest fifth of pupils would have been “unprecedented and therefore not credible”.

At National 5 level, the pass rate for the poorest pupils was 74% when teachers’ estimates would have led to an 84.5% pass rate without moderation.

For the least deprived, the 92.3% estimated pass rate fell to 87.1% after the SQA’s moderation.

In Scotland’s first school year without exams due to coronavirus, more than a quarter (26.2%) of grades were changed during moderation by the SQA - a total of 133,762 - while 377,308 entries were accepted unchanged.

The exam board’s criteria for moderation included the historic performance of of schools and grades were adjusted “where a centre’s estimates were outside the constraint range for that course”, according to the SQA chief examining officer Fiona Robertson

New schools without previous exam results were unchanged.

Despite the downgrading 124,564 pupils’ results - 93.1% of all the moderated grades - exam pass rates rose at every level and would have been the highest on record without the SQA downgrading some submitted results, Education Secretary John Swinney said.

Asked about the SQA’s figures showing deprived children being affected more by the downgrading of results, Ms Sturgeon said: “What we want to make sure is that this year’s results have the degree of credibility that means that they are not so out of sync with previous years that people are going to look at them and say ‘they don’t make any sense’.

“As much as I would love to be in the position of standing here credibly saying that 85% of the 20% in the most deprived areas had passed Higher, given that it was 65% last year, that would raise a real credibility issue.”

She added: “Anybody who has a result, has passed a Higher or a National 5 today, can hold their head up for having a credible exam result, albeit without the actual exam.

“That’s why the methodology in the moderation system is important in order to do that so that people don’t look at incredible inflation and pass rates and say the whole system wasn’t in some way credible.”

Mr Swinney stressed that approximately 90% of moderation “involved a change of just one grade”.

He added: “We’ve maintained the overwhelming majority of estimates that have been put forward by teachers and the changes that have been made are essentially those fine-grained judgments that are required to be made on an annual basis.”

He pointed out that the performance gap between the least and most deprived young people has narrowed compared with 2019.

“That demonstrates that, inherently, this system has been fair to all learners,” he said.

He added pupils can challenge their results for free this year, adding: “I would encourage them to consider that evidence and to come forward”.

Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said the First Minister “effectively said the moderation system should maintain the shameful attainment gap that already exists”.

And writing on Twitter, he added that using previous results from schools to decide grades “embeds disadvantage & the ridiculous league tables that has artificially hampered schools in more deprived areas”.

“It’s certainly not the “opportunity for all” & “education being the number one priority for the FM” she repeatedly promised,” he said.