‘Saying there’s no need for exams lets down schools’

Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon said there is no requirement for exams this year – here’s why teachers are outraged, writes this school leader
7th April 2021, 9:29am


‘Saying there’s no need for exams lets down schools’

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Yesterday's coronavirus briefing was another First Minister's update that I watched with a sense of dread and that left me with an all-too-familiar feeling of dismay.  

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) situation has been disastrous in one way or another since March 2020 and shows no sign of abating. And now Nicola Sturgeon has said there is no requirement for students to sit an exam or a prelim this year. That is simply disingenuous. 

Background: What Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday

News: Some teachers to earn below minimum wage for exam work

Exclusive: Cancelled exams save SQA almost £20m

Opinion: Why parents and schools must team up in Covid recovery

Ms Sturgeon knows that schools base assessments on what the SQA count as suitable evidence. Many courses face guidance along the lines of "assessments should be as close to the usual course exam as possible and if not, grade cut-offs should be increased".  

However, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney keep repeating this unfair narrative that there is no requirement for exams. This is misleading to the public and is not helping schools when we have to explain to parents why we are planning assessments for next term

The reaction on social media to the First Minister's comments from pupils, parents and teachers is one of utter dismay. I personally feel it is because everyone involved in education at the moment feels fatigued, dismayed and angry at the decisions that have been made over the course of the pandemic. 

Teachers have been through the ringer over the course of the past year. There have been close to 200 SQA update documents across different subject areas and staff have had countless internal and local authority moderation sessions to attend and plan for before and during lockdown. 

Additionally, the profession has had to continually change and adapt how they are teaching from full-class, face-to-face lessons; to fully online; then to blended; and now back to full-time, face-to-face.  

Staff have had to stay on top of a constant string of changes. Different subject areas have different requirements. Some were demanding 100 per cent course coverage for assessments to be deemed reliable. That has been dropped to 70 per cent but it still begs the question: how do you show this course coverage in anything but some form of exam-based assessment?  

If the Scottish government is genuine and believes students should not have to sit exams, they should tell the SQA quickly. This is of the utmost importance because based on yesterday's comments some schools may be doing exam-style assessments while a school two miles down the road could listen to the First Minister and decide to adopt a coursework-only approach. There would be absolutely no equity across these approaches; this needs addressed immediately.  

As a parent, I am concerned about the impact two extended periods of school closures will have on my children. Fortunately, they are not in the process of SQA assessments but if they were I would be angry and confused. Who is right? Is it Nicola Sturgeon or the schools who are still running exams? If teachers are confused, I can only imagine how the parents are feeling.  

However, the group of people I feel most sorry for is our pupils. Too often decisions are made with a political focus and not one that focuses on the best outcome for the child.  

We should accept that it is not fair for pupils to have to sit exams after missing nearly a year of school over the two lockdown periods. We need to start looking at repeating the year in some way, shape or form for all pupils, with the exception of those leaving school. This would allow a focus on recovery and hopefully allow pupils a clear run at things next session.  

This is not a perfect solution, but there is nothing perfect about this situation. If we don't change it now, pupils will be returning after Easter and facing multiple assessments, probably split into two parts (so two assessments per subject).  

The major problems this poses next term are:

  1. If isolation is forced upon pupils because of positive cases there will be further disadvantage causing inequity.
  2. The summer term is short and time is not on our side to help pupils get to a position where they are ready for assessments.  
  3. Managing the number of assessments pupils have to do is going to be exceptionally difficult. Schools should consider spacing these out as much as they possibly can.
  4. Plans should be put in place now to assist the mental health of pupils and staff as anxiety levels will increase greatly.

These are only a few of the issues we will face but the Scottish government should start thinking now about how they will deal with these and any others that arise. I have concerns about how many people will want to leave the profession because of the past year. Things cannot continue in this way for much longer.

The writer is a secondary school leader in Scotland

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