Young people can still flourish despite missing exams

Missing out on the landmark of sitting your Highers should not hold back this generation of students in Scotland, says Joanna Murphy

Joanna Murphy

'Young people can still flourish despite missing exams'

When the schools closed on 20 March with the exams already cancelled, my S5 daughter remarked, “You dream all your life that school will be closed indefinitely and the exams cancelled – now that has happened and I don’t know what to do...”

She then proceeded to begin what could only be described as hibernation and has only recently ventured out from her bedroom cocoon. Which is as reasonable a way to avoid lockdown anxiety as any, I suppose.

But what she said rang true with me, too. I can’t have been the only parent thinking, "What will they do now?"


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Somehow, three and a half months have passed since schools closed; the wise S5 thinker philosophising on her future has become a new S6, hoping to sit two Advanced Highers but in the peculiar position of not having sat any exams in S5.

This, obviously, is not just her burden, but that of a whole cohort that spent five years in secondary preparing for that moment. It’s difficult to tell how she feels about the impending results day  I think she has almost forgotten about it!

I, on the other hand, am trying to fake nonchalance, trying to pretend that 4 August is just like any other day and nothing out of the ordinary will occur. But I am fooling no one.

As a mother of three daughters, I have been through this before. But the previous years were different. We spent hours going over every detail of each exam, working through each possible permutation of available answers, keeping a tally of marks in an effort to gauge an overall grade.

But we couldn’t do that this year and, while it has pleased my daughter no end not having had to endure the exam diet, it has left me feeling strangely uneasy. It’s an unknown quantity and, as a parent, I don’t like that. The lack of the dreaded exam doesn’t seem to have affected the youngest Miss Murphy, but it has unnerved me.

Now, I’m not a big fan of all-or-nothing exams; I think continuous assessment gives a much truer appraisal of knowledge. What is the point of just memorising things just to be able to reel them off? (I mean, I learned the periodic table to the tune of It’s My Party (and I’ll cry if I want to, but Marie Curie I’m not). We need our school leavers to be able to contribute in a work environment, not just know formulae or a series of historic dates. But exams are what we have  until this year, when we didn’t.

On 28 May, I woke my daughter up to try and have a moment with her. “You would have been sitting Higher drama right now,” I said, as she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Since then I have been overthinking my loss. I didn’t get to console her, or reassure her, to second-guess her, interpret her mood or calm her down. She didn't have an exam to get excited about, so I didn’t either. She didn’t bring home any papers and so I couldn’t analyse each question with her. She has no stories of losing her calculator or not managing to answer the last question or whatever didn’t happen, so there’s nothing to share. 

And now, as results day is almost upon us, I realise that a nervousness has developed in us both. This unease has been enveloping us quietly since the school holidays began. She’s worried about the email she’ll get at 8am on Tuesday and so am I. I say: “It’s entirely normal, it's not unusual to worry about what you’ll get.”

But that’s not all  she knows, too, that she has missed out on something. Something she can never get back. Talk of a lost generation is over the top, but my daughter’s cohort, which started primary school in 2008, has for 12 years been working their way to this moment, and Covid-19 has confused things for them

We’ll all remember the spring and early summer of 2020. I will never forget how proud I was of my youngest daughter for coping so well with the emotional and mental upheaval she faced as the school closed its doors.

It matters what secrets are contained within the white SQA results envelope. But what matters more is that my daughter and every other young person returning to school having not sat any exams believe in themselves, and look ahead to the next challenge.

I know they are still capable of making this the best and most fulfilling year of their young lives – and that’s all that a parent could want. 

Joanna Murphy is chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland. The NPFS "In a Nutshell…" series provides parents with clear information about a wide range of areas of education, written for parents, by parents.

*Tes Scotland will be live blogging throughout SQA results day 2020, on Tuesday 4 August. To find our coverage go to the Scotland hub of the Tes website.

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