Pupils have ‘huge’ knowledge gap after Covid, hear MSPs

Assessment last year caused ‘stress and exhaustion’, with pupils 'crying regularly’, a Holyrood committee has been told

Emma Seith

Covid catch-up: School pupils 'have huge knowledge gap after Covid'

We need to say “out loud and admit” that there is a “huge” gap in the knowledge of some pupils as a result of Covid, according to the head of education for a Scottish council.

Audrey May, head of education at Dundee City Council, this morning told MSPs that when pupils returned to school the focus was not on "catch-up" but on their wellbeing and welfare.

However, she stressed that it was also important to accept that, while some students had engaged well with digital learning, others had not.


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Ms May made her comments to the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee, which is taking evidence on the "alternative certification model" (ACM) that replaced the exams last year.

Covid catch-up: The impact of learning loss

The committee also gathered views from young people in nine private sessions last week, and heard that pressure to achieve good marks last year had “led to stress and exhaustion”.

A report summarising the students’ views says they spoke of “crying regularly and suffering from headaches”. It adds that some secondary students “had dropped subjects and this would have an impact on their future”.

Ms May said: “When our young people did return to school, we didn’t use the language of 'catching up' and put extra pressure on them. We were very much concerned about their welfare and wanted to care for them because of the impact of their experience through the pandemic, and the worry about qualifications.

“So it was very much a health and wellbeing and a welfare approach that we took to the return, so we haven’t focused on, ‘Well, you’ve got a huge gap in your knowledge,' and I think we need to say that out loud and admit that’s actually the case.

“So we do need to think about what does that mean going forward.”

Tony McDaid, South Lanarkshire Council’s director of education, who was also giving evidence, pointed out that students set to sit Highers this year had gone through two periods of lockdown.

He said the gaps in their knowledge were being addressed by the adjustments made to courses and qualifications by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

So, for example, in Higher English this year students will produce only one piece of writing for their portfolio – as opposed to two. Without such changes the “leap” to Higher would have been “considerable”, he said.

As a result of these changes, Mr McDaid said he was not so worried about the knowledge gap this year.

Meanwhile, the report summarising young people’s views says that, despite national exams being cancelled in 2020-21, “many young people said they did still feel like they were sitting exams”. Some reported that they “felt like they sat exams every day for two months straight”; one student had 39 assessments in an eight-week period.

The students reported that pressure to achieve good marks had “led to stress and exhaustion”. The report also states that pupils “spoke of crying regularly and suffering from headaches”.

The report adds: “Young carers said they had felt mentally drained at times. Participants in the CiS [Children in Scotland] session felt some schools were too elitist and cared more about results and statistics than pupil wellbeing.”

It continues: “It was mentioned that some pupils had dropped subjects and this would have an impact on their future.”

However, the students did highlight some positives: assessment last year was not based on a single exam; assessments happened later in the school year, “giving pupils a chance to improve”; and the ACM was more flexible, allowing assessments to be taking on a different date if needed.

Ms May also said that one of the benefits of the ACM in 2020-21 was that there were “no surprises” when it came to the grades that students received. She added that this was reflected in the small number of appeals.

Data on the total number of appeals following last year’s results has yet to be published by the SQA but when the results came out in August the body said it had received 4,000 appeals. Around 11,500 review requests were received by the SQA results service in 2019, under the system in place before Covid.

Mr McDaid said the priority for this year was that teachers should not be having to prepare students for exams at the same time as running an alternative assessment model.

He said: “We need to make sure that teachers’ workload is manageable because that is integral to the experience young people have and, ultimately, the qualifications they have.”

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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