All school exams in Scotland cancelled next year

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All exams in Scotland have been cancelled because of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on pupils, Education Secretary John Swinney has announced.

Mr Swinney told the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday that Higher and Advanced Higher exams are being cancelled for the second year in a row after an earlier decision to scrap tests at National 5.

He explained “the level of disruption to learners has not been equal”, with pupils from poorer backgrounds more likely to miss school to self-isolate.

“Exams cannot account for differential loss of learning and could lead to unfair results for our poorest pupils.

“This could lead to pupils’ futures being blighted through no fault of their own. That is simply not fair.”

He added: “While we hope that public health will improve in the coming months, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to pupils’ learning.

“In light of this, the question is less whether we can hold the exams safely in the spring and more whether we can do so fairly.

“However, there is no getting around the fact that a significant percentage of our poorest pupils have lost significantly more teaching time than other pupils.

“Changing the exams for all does not – and cannot – address that. Instead, we need a model that is more flexible to the specific circumstances of the individual pupil.”

School exam stock
The decision to cancel exams is an acknowledgement of the disruption ‘so many pupils’ have faced, Mr Swinney said (David Jones/PA)

No algorithm will be used to adjust results after the backlash at this year’s moderation process that disproportionately downgraded pupils from poorer backgrounds, Mr Swinney said.

He added: “We will adopt the new model that has been developed and base awards on teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment.

“This is safe. It is fair. And it better recognises the reality of the disruption so many pupils have already had to their learning.”

The decision follows a similar move by the Welsh Government to cancel its exam diet for 2021 in November.

The UK Government has confirmed exams in England will go ahead in May.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene criticised the government’s “months of dither and delay” before making the announcement, which he described as an “admission of complete failure”.

He added: “The decision today to cancel Higher exams will come as a disappointment to those who believe that exams offer consistency, fairness and a level playing field.”

Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “These decisions make sense, but yet again, they are made very, very late.

“Students are already returning home, many having to do so unsure until now how or whether they would be able to return. And school pupils are preparing for or even sitting prelims for exams which will not now happen.

“In both cases, pupils, teachers, students and universities have been pleading for clarity for weeks – so they need it urgently now.”

Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said the announcement is “overdue but welcome”, adding: “It provides the clarity that teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils had demanded.

“What’s essential now is that the Education Secretary stops the SQA repeating its approach to National 5 assessments with the Higher and Advanced Highers.

“Despite Mr Swinney’s categorical assurances to me earlier this year, the SQA has created a system which has massively added to teachers’ workloads, essentially expecting them to take on the huge additional work of an SQA marker.

“Given that Scotland’s school system was already dependent on an average of eleven hours of overtime per teacher per week, this will push many beyond their breaking point and simply cannot be allowed to happen.”

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie said: “We now need to know that the SQA and Education Scotland are going to pull out all the stops and work through Christmas if that is what it takes to ensure all the guidance and details are in place for the start of the new term at the very latest.

“Teachers, pupils and parents deserve no less.

“Now is the time for ministers to prove they’ve learned lessons from the multiple mishaps this year and put fairness at the centre of this process.”

EIS teaching union general secretary Larry Flanagan, said: “The EIS has every confidence in the ability of teachers to make professional judgments based on pupil evidence and in the circumstances believes that cancelling the exam diet in favour of an alternative model is the correct decision, one which could have been made earlier.

“We have raised repeatedly, however, the additional workload burden which this will generate and made clear that teachers should not be treated as unpaid SQA markers.”

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said: “This decision recognises the ongoing impact of the pandemic and the disruption it has caused in relation to the loss of learning for tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland, particularly for those in the most deprived areas.”

Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive, added: “We anticipate that the approach to awarding Highers and Advanced Highers can now follow broadly the same model and timeline set for National 5 courses, but with more flexibility around the nature of the learner evidence needed to inform awards.

“Following the announcement today, and at the request of the Deputy First Minister, we will now work through the finer details of this approach at pace, to provide clarity and certainty to the system.”

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