Government ‘plans 2021 exam diet’ amid cancellation reports

Scottish Government acknowledged there remains a risk of further disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Government ‘plans 2021 exam diet’ amid cancellation reports Getty Images
John Swinney will give an exams update before the October break.

The Scottish Government has said it still intends to run an exam diet in 2021 amid reports suggesting they face being cancelled for a second year in a row.

However, the government acknowledged there remains a risk of further disruption as ministers and scientific advisers consider tighter lockdown restrictions to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

School exams were cancelled this year because of the virus, having previously been held every year since 1888.

A report in The Sunday Times newspaper said ministers are expected to drop National 5 tests – sat by S3 and S4 pupils – next year as part of plans being considered by education secretary John Swinney.

The paper, quoting an anonymous source inside the government, said a scaled-back version of Highers would still go ahead.

But a Scottish Government spokesman said any changes to course assessment needed to be considered alongside a review of the 2020 exams being conducted by Professor Mark Priestley, who will report at the end of the month.

‘Our ambition is to run a 2021 examination diet, however there remains a risk of further disruption for learners and schools, or more widely across the country.’

Scottish Government spokesman

The spokesman said: “Our ambition is to run a 2021 examination diet, however there remains a risk of further disruption for learners and schools, or more widely across the country.

“Any changes to course assessment need to be considered alongside the findings of Professor Priestley’s review of the 2020 exams, which will report at the end of the month.

“In addition, the SQA and the Education Recovery Group are looking at appropriate contingencies. Deputy First Minister John Swinney will provide clarity on next steps before the October break.”

Swinney survived a vote of no confidence last month after coming under fire over the Scottish Qualification Authority’s downgrading of teachers’ estimates.

Teacher predictions were moderated by the SQA, resulting in a methodology that disproportionately affected pupils from deprived backgrounds and sparked a huge backlash.

A week after exam results were sent out, Swinney apologised to pupils and announced grades would be reverted back to original teacher predictions.

The Scottish Conservatives said the government had to “exhaust all avenues” before scrapping next year’s exam diet.

“Nobody is pretending it will be easy, but it must be our central goal to give pupils a return to as much normality as possible.”

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservative Education Spokesman

The party’s education spokesman Jamie Greene said:  “Going ahead with exams must be plan A. The SNP should make every effort to save National 5 and Higher exams.  

“Nobody is pretending it will be easy, but it must be our central goal to give pupils a return to as much normality as possible.   

“And if the virus does impact plan A, we also need credible contingency plans, which we didn’t have this year.  We will be demanding John Swinney sets out his plans in parliament on Tuesday.”

Swinney survived the no confidence motion partly due to support from the Scottish Greens, who were satisfied by his change in stance.

And the Scottish Greens have now renewed their call for Swinney to cancel all exams in 2021.

Ross Greer, the party’s education spokesman, said: “John Swinney himself has already acknowledged the huge logistical challenge presented by attempting to run exams, given all pupils must sit the exam at the same time but a maximum of only 50 pupils can be in any exam hall.

“The only reliable solution is to cancel the 2021 exams now and grade pupils based on their work throughout the year, avoiding both the risk of exams taking place during a pandemic and the chaos of last month’s grading scandal.”

Around 138,000 school pupils received the results of their National, Higher and Advanced Higher courses in August after an exam-free year due to the pandemic.

Although pass rates were up, the moderation system produced by the SQA and approved by the Scottish Government saw 26.2% of grades changed.

The SQA downgraded 124,564 results – 93.1% of all the moderated grades – based on criteria including schools’ historic performances.

Pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland had their grades reduced by 15.2% compared with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.