What it’s like to have your exams cancelled – twice

The prelims now feel like ‘the real deal’ for this S6 pupil who had her Highers cancelled – and her Advanced Highers cancelled, too
14th December 2020, 11:44am
Millie Tulleth

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What it’s like to have your exams cancelled – twice

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/what-its-have-your-exams-cancelled-twice
What It’s Like To Have Your Exams Cancelled – Twice

My head is buried in my books, revising for approaching prelims. I'm studying for Advanced Higher biology and attempting to get to grips with the sodium-potassium pump. Fascinating! Then I hear the news - the Higher and Advanced Higher exams are to be cancelled.

I descend into a spiral of panic as reality hits. The Advanced Higher prelims I will be sitting in just a few days time now hold more importance than I originally imagined. They feel more like the real deal.


Background: Scotland's 2021 exams cancelled by education secretary

Headteacher: 'Secondary staff are fearful of the workload ahead'

Opinion: Could cancelling exams permanently reshape assessment?


The start of my sixth year hasn't gone exactly to plan. Owing to mental health struggles I've found it hard to focus and haven't performed as well as I know I can in class tests. However, I felt reassured that I could, hopefully, rectify those marks. After all, we wouldn't be sitting the final exams until next year, would we? How wrong I was.

Now with the knowledge that my final grades will be based on work assessed throughout the year, the pressure is on to pick up the pieces. 

With thousands of pupils across the country having to self-isolate, some on numerous occasions, it seems to me there is an obvious inequality in the individual learning experiences of young people throughout Scotland this year. I have not had to isolate but many of my peers have, and PowerPoint slides and textbook pages at home do not compare to interactive, face-to-face learning.

It also feels extremely unfair when comparing my learning experience in school with that of pupils self-isolating who perhaps do not have access to a computer or wi-fi at home, those who do not have comfortable or safe home environments in which to learn, and children with additional support needs who may struggle more with self-isolation. If exams had proceeded this would have only widened the attainment gap, so I do think this is the right decision.

However, I can't help but feel the announcement should have come sooner. It's been two months since the education secretary, John Swinney, announced the cancellation of National 5 exams, and while part of me knew that I would probably never see the inside of an exam hall again, I clung on to hope with both hands.

Surely if they were going to cancel the rest of the exams they would just do it all at once? Now it feels as though the goalposts have shifted and my imminent prelims hold a much greater significance.

Last year's exam fiasco meant that when I originally received my Higher results, I had been downgraded in two of my strongest subjects. This put my place on my desired university course in jeopardy. Thankfully these grades were corrected - but it's hard to forget those initial feelings of frustration and upset.

The Scottish government has stated that this year it will not be using algorithms to adjust grades, hopefully creating a fairer process. All that stands between me and university now is my hard work and my teachers' judgement. No pressure.

I feel for the teachers as well as the students. Not only are they putting themselves and their families at risk while working, but they will also be faced with an increased workload as they take on the additional marking and assessing responsibilities.

More than ever, we are living in the midst of uncertainty and panic. We walk through the school doors, adjust our face masks, sanitise, follow the one-way system to our freezing classes, wipe the desk and then repeat.

But does the person sitting next to me have coronavirus? Will I be able to see my friends this weekend? Will my exams go ahead? It's overwhelming.

Nobody could have foreseen this situation and I sympathise with the Scottish government - these decisions must be hard to make. My hope is that I'll be able to regain some focus over the coming months and that all of this upheaval might, ultimately, lead to a new, more consistent way of assessing work in school.

Millie Tulleth is an S6 pupil at a South Lanarkshire secondary

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