The first minister has said that there is a “strong argument” for taking a decision on whether or not the Higher and Advanced Higher exams will go ahead before mid-February, after coming under pressure from opposition parties to cancel the exams.
This afternoon at First Minister’s Questions, both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats called on Nicola Sturgeon to cancel the exams to give teachers and pupils clarity, but also to create a more level playing field for those students who have missed weeks of school owing to the coronavirus.
The Scottish government has said the February break is the latest point at which a decision to cancel the exams could be taken.
However, the Greens co-leader, Patrick Harvie, said it was already clear that “the ship has sailed on any chance of holding exams in a fair equitable manner”.
He said his party had heard from a pupil who was having to self-isolate for the third time and added: “Isn’t it time the First Minister gave teachers and young people the clarity they need and accepted that Higher and Advanced Higher exams cannot go ahead in the coming year?”
The Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, also raised the issue of some pupils having to self-isolate for a fortnight “multiple times”, while others had not “missed a minute of school”.
He said: “That means we need an effective alternative to those Higher and Advanced Higher exams, but to make that happen teachers and students need plenty of warning. The longer the government waits, the less time teachers have to prepare, the greater the problem becomes.
“The Welsh government decided weeks ago to cancel the exams, so will the first minister think again, and make the decision, and cancel those exams?”
In response, Ms Sturgeon said “ideally” the Scottish government wanted the Higher and Advanced Higher exams to go ahead.
However, she added that the government was “monitoring the position closely” and that fairness to all learners was “at the top of the priority list”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “It is important we take the time to get this right because that matters to all young people. The deputy first minister had previously said that mid-February would be the last possible date for taking a decision on this.
“I think there is an argument – a strong argument – that says we should come to a conclusion on this earlier than mid-February and we are discussing this intensely at the moment, and we will take account of all of the factors that face young people right now – the desire many young people have to sit the exams that they work for, but the understandable concern on the part of many young people that, because of self-isolation, and the wider disruption of Covid, having to sit an exam would not be fair for them to do.
“We will come to a balanced decision as soon as we think that is appropriate. In the interim of course...contingency plans for the Higher and Advanced Higher courses are currently being developed.”
During First Minister's Quesations, Mr Harvie also questioned the government’s decision not to extend the Christmas school holidays and asked if there was “no risk of young people bringing Covid into schools in January putting each other, their communities, and school staff at risk, forcing even more to self-isolate in the New Year”.
Ms Sturgeon said it was a “difficult decision” and there were “views on both sides” but the balanced judgment public health advisers and the government had come to was the risk of transmission in schools, even after the Christmas period, did not outweigh the risk to children’s education if they were out of school for longer periods of time.