Exam uncertainty ‘distressing and disheartening’, pupils tell MSPs

Young advisers to Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner also warned about the 'hellish' prospect of returning to schools.

Exam uncertainty ‘distressing and disheartening’, pupils tell MSPs Getty Images
Classroom: Young advisers also warned about the 'hellish' prospect of returning to schools.

A lack of clarity from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) about exam replacements and the appeals process is “distressing and disheartening for young people”, Holyrood’s Education Committee has been told by pupils.

Young advisers to Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner have also warned about the “hellish” prospect of returning to schools for a term of near-constant testing because of lockdown and exam cancellations.

The secondary school pupils, who advise the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, criticised the exam board’s lack of communication and the uncertainty pupils face when they return to schools.

Young adviser Coll McCail said there was a “fear” among pupils who are working towards qualifications that they face a “potential month of test after test after test” to produce enough evidence to support grades awarded by teachers.

“Because we have missed so much time in school, what we are going to be met with is a month or a term of assessment so that teachers can generate enough evidence to give to the SQA,” Mr McCail told MSPs.

“I think that is scary for young people.”

He added: “If you’re doing five Highers or six Nat 5s, it has the potential to be hellish.”

Abigail McGill, another young adviser, argued that young people have been “treated as the villain of the pandemic”, with a widespread lack of understanding of how lockdown, school closures and last year’s bungled replacement for awarding grades have affected pupils’ educations.

She said the lack of communication from the SQA about pupils’ qualifications was “very, very unfair” and added: “It’s very distressing and disheartening for young people.

“I think a lot of people have lost a lot of motivation this year and their studies have been affected by it.”

Referencing last year’s unfair moderation that disproportionately downgraded pupils from more deprived backgrounds, Ms McGill said pupils felt “majorly disadvantaged” and suggested there was still huge uncertainty about this year’s system.

“There has been a lack of clarity, no one got told what was happening, no one got told how [the] appeals process was working,” she told MSPs.

“Even afterwards, no one got told how to appeal, it was just, ‘speak to a teacher, they might sort out for you, they might not’.”

Asked whether the SQA had improved the situation for the upcoming grading, Ms McGill replied: “I have absolutely no clue because I haven’t been told anything about the appeals process this year.

“I barely know anything about the way assessments are going this year, my school knows basically nothing and I know as much as they can give me, so I honestly couldn’t tell you because I have no idea.”

Mr Adamson added: “The big remaining issue from last year is around appeals and the lack of proper rights to a remedy for those children who still don’t have the mark that they deserve.

“The inability to actually make a direct appeal, to actually present the evidence that may not have been included or to explain more fully some of the reasons why the mark they were given wasn’t appropriate – that direct route of appeal is absolutely essential for this year.”

Last month, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the national exams body to be reformed, backing a motion warning that it was no longer “fit for purpose”.

Education secretary John Swinney defended the SQA and said the pandemic had presented “enormous challenges” for the education sector.

“It serves neither the country nor our children and young people to attack the contribution of some of those staff in Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority for their efforts,” he said.

An SQA spokesman said: “Young people should talk to their school or college first if they have any questions about this year’s assessments.

“We have published detailed assessment guidance for every subject at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, which have been communicated to schools and colleges.

“This guidance highlights the flexible approaches in which assessment can be carried out. To maximise learning and teaching time, we have extended the deadlines for submitting evidence and also advised that assessment should take place later in the academic year.”

He added: “Throughout the creation of this year’s model, and about how a new appeals process might operate in 2021, the views and impact on young people have been at the heart of our decision making.

“To allow more views to be heard and considered, we will issue a public consultation on 2021 appeals this week.

“We also established a learner panel to hear directly from young people and, in response to that feedback, will soon be providing every learner with a booklet detailing this year’s model.

“Our website has information specifically created for learners.”