This week, Scotland heard the uplifting news that most of the country will move down into level 2 Covid-19 restrictions, bringing with it a feeling that the pandemic is coming to an end. But for some young people in their second year of educational disruption, and in the midst of assessments, the impact of the pandemic is far from over.
Since schools first closed in March 2020, young people’s right to education has been severely affected. This year, standard National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams have been replaced by an “alternative certification model” that will be used to determine a young person’s final grades.
Young people have been telling those in power, for most of the past year, that they are experiencing chronic uncertainty as to how their qualifications will be assessed. It is difficult to see how this is in their best interests or conducive to the highest attainable standard of mental health. To make matters worse, young people have consistently told us that they don’t feel that they have been properly involved in these decisions.
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Thankfully, most young people will cope with this acute period of stress and will manage to achieve the grades they need and deserve without a huge impact on their long-term futures.
But there are some for whom the impact of the past two years has been greater, and who may not be able to evidence their learning and attainment, through no fault of their own. They must not be penalised.
Education is about much more than assessments; it’s about developing children to their fullest potential. Recognising young people’s achievements is an important part of the right to education. It directly impacts on access to additional education, job prospects, mental health and development.
Young people told us at the start of the pandemic that ensuring all of the impacts of Covid-19 were taken into account when considering how to recognise their achievements was a top priority. And we need to listen to and act on that.
Emergency home learning and disruption across education have exacerbated existing inequalities. Some young people were unable to access the necessary technology or their usual support services, some struggled to find a safe and appropriate place to learn owing to substandard housing or faced additional barriers as a result of poverty, disability, being a young carer or other circumstances. Young people’s mental health has also been severely affected as they and their families were cut off from community, family and friendship supports that are so vital.
And in the midst of this, their educational attainment has had to be assessed. Last year’s approach to assessments failed and, while mistakes were rectified for many, a number of young people are still waiting for a fair result.
There is still time to ensure that this year is different. We must take into account what has happened in a young person’s life that would affect their ability to demonstrate attainment.
My office has received pleas from parents as well as young people to be allowed to appeal grades because of exceptional circumstances, such as a young carer whose parent had a stroke and another whose parent was taken seriously ill. And also from young people themselves who were ill. But they feel that none of this could be taken into account.
Young people who need extra help in school, who have already been affected more than others by the pandemic, continue to be severely disadvantaged.
We have heard from the families of young people with additional support needs being “sidelined”, with their usual support suspended, and who have been struggling with online learning designed without taking into account their individual needs, and also the needs of those who cannot use online learning at all as a result of their disability or lack of access.
We heard, too, from a parent about how their child, who normally did well in their chosen subjects, had been affected by the lack support for their hearing impairment, but had no way to prove this.
We need to stand back and see the whole picture. How are we valuing and respecting young people’s human rights when it’s not clear how we should take into account illness, disability and, in worst-case scenarios, the death of a loved one?
Young people need clarity and reassurance. They need to know that the exceptional circumstances they have experienced in the pandemic will be taken into account and be given the chance to appeal their grades where this has not happened.
Teachers have been doing extraordinary jobs in the face of huge challenges. They have been asked to assess young people in an unprecedented way, at great pace and at short notice. To support young people, we need to support teachers, too. There appears to be mixed messages from those in authority about how “flexibility” can be applied in determining grades.
As a safeguard, appeal grounds need to be wide enough to allow these issues to be taken into account and corrected.
It’s essential that the appeals process be one of “no detriment”, with no risk of downgrading for a person who makes an appeal. Young people shouldn’t face barriers to the appeal process owing to fear of further negative consequences.
The right to education is a broad one; its purpose is to ensure the development of children’s personalities, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
But in failing to provide a rights-compliant system that takes into account all that has happened over the last year, and creates unnecessary pressure and stress, we are failing them.
The clock is ticking but time has not run out.
If the alternative certification model truly is flexible enough to take into account the exceptional circumstances that have affected young people this year, they need to know clearly how. If it is not, there is still time to develop a human rights-compliant appeals system. There is still time for the Scottish government to act to ensure that the system for recognising young people’s achievements helps them develop to their fullest potential.