SCHOOLS: Exams replaced with teacher judgement of evidence of pupils’ attainment

John Swinney, Karen Conaghan, education convener in West Dunbartonshire and pupils at school.

By Bill Heaney

Plans for the 2021 exam diet have been updated in light of continuing disruption to young people’s education caused by coronavirus (COVID-19).

Higher and Advanced Higher exams will not go ahead and will be replaced with awards based on teacher judgement of evidence of pupils’ attainment. The assessment model will be based on the approach already agreed for National 5 awards, details of which are being set out today.

Data shows that since the return to school in August, there have been varied instances of COVID-related disruption to learning, with a higher proportion of pupils from more deprived areas having to spend time out of school.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said:  “In October, I said Highers and Advanced Highers would go ahead if it was safe and fair to do so. Since then, many pupils have suffered disruption because of COVID, as they were obliged to self-isolate or even saw their school closed. The level of disruption has, however, not been the same across the board – pupils in deprived areas have been hit hardest.

“While we hope that public health will improve in the coming months with the roll-out of the vaccine, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to pupils’ learning.

“Holding exams would run the risk of translating the unequal impact of COVID into unfair results for our poorest pupils, leading to their futures being blighted through no fault of their own. That is simply not fair.

“There will be no Higher or Advanced Higher exams in 2021. Instead we will adopt a new model that is based on the one developed for National 5 qualifications and make awards on teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment. This approach is more flexible and takes account of the reality of the disruption so many pupils have already had to their learning.”

Mr Swinney also announced there will be an exceptional one-off payment to teachers and lecturers who are critical to assessing and marking National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses this year. This is to recognise their additional workload of assessing national qualifications in this unique academic year in the absence of exams. The Scottish Government will work with partners and employers on the specifics of this payment.

West Dunbartonshire’s education convener Karen Conaghan had no comment to make to The Democrat.

Responding to the news that Scotland’s exam diet for 2020 will be cancelled, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie commented:  “Cancelling exams is the right thing to do and was inevitable. The evidence is clear that pupils wouldn’t have an equal shot at success if they went ahead. Some have had the disruption of self-isolating multiple times, while others haven’t missed a minute of school.

“Exams were cancelled in Wales weeks ago while teachers and pupils in Scotland have been left in limbo not knowing how their assessments would proceed.

“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.” 

Meanwhile,  the National Qualifications 2021 group, led by the SQA and involving local authority directors of educations, the EIS, and others, have been working to develop the model for assessing National 5 qualifications.

It involves teachers and lecturers working with the SQA to understand the standards required for national qualifications and how to apply this when grading pieces of evidence such as course work. No algorithm will be used, nor will learners’ awards be based on school past performance.

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