‘Impossible’ to deliver usual exams in 2021, says union

Clarity on next year's exams is needed before students in Scotland return to school in August, admits education secretary

Emma Seith & Henry Hepburn

‘Impossible’ to deliver usual exams in 2021, says union

It will be "impossible" to run Scotland's 2021 exams in the usual way, the general secretary of the country's biggest teaching union has said.

Larry Flanagan, of the EIS union, made his comments to Tes Scotland shortly after education secretary John Swinney said that planning was "proceeding as we speak…for there to be the delivery of the traditional exam diet".

However, Mr Swinney also stressed the importance of teachers gathering evidence of their students' progress in the coming year, as he could not provide "absolute certainty" that Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams would go ahead next year.

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Mr Flanagan said afterwards that it was “impossible to think there could be a return to the usual exam diet”.

He added: “There’s a general recognition you can only assess what is taught and in a "blended learning" model you can’t deliver the 160 hours' teaching that is required for courses. It’s just impossible to think that there could be a return to the usual exam diet – it can’t be done.”

Mr Flanagan said that talking as if next year's exams would take place was “the tail wagging” the dog. First, he believes, firstly, an assessment should be made of the teaching and learning that could take place in the "blended learning" model, which will involve learning being split between school and home.

Mr Flanagan said: “The impact of blended learning and physical distancing means you can’t deliver the normal teaching and learning requirements. If SQA is saying they can’t change and schools can’t deliver the courses, you have a problem and you need to have a constructive solution to it. There’s no point in either side digging in their heels – that will not serve teachers or pupils well.”

Mr Swinney, who is also deputy first minister, made his comments during today's meeting of the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee, where Green education spokesman Ross Greer flagged up the "Herculean efforts" required to mitigate the impact of blended learning and school closures.

These factors will have "an impact on young people’s ability to learn", said Mr Greer, adding that "if the exams were conducted in a normal manner at the end of a very abnormal year, there would be a corresponding impact on their attainment in those exams".

In response, Mr Swinney said this was "a really difficult question" and "one I do agonise about", as "the last thing I want is that young people are not in any way able to properly realise their potential".

He added that there was "really innovative work" happening with digital learning, citing the national rollout of the Western Isles e-Sgoil.

He also stressed that it is not inevitable the exams would go ahead in their usual form; just because exams were the traditional form of assessing senior students' achievements did not mean that this would always have to be the case.

"So, although it’s 'aye been' like that in Scotland, it doesn’t have to ‘aye be like’ that," he said. He added that, while "we are planning on the basis of the SQA [exam] diet taking place in the spring of 2021", Mr Greer has raised "significant issues that we have to consider and judge".

Mr Swinney then said that "the system needs to have clarity before young people return to formal schooling in August".

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Emma Seith & Henry Hepburn

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