Scotland's Higher and Advanced Higher 2021 exams have been cancelled, education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney has announced.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams taken by students in the vast majority of secondary schools and further education colleges will now not take place for the second year in a row, as the pandemic continues to force ministers into drastic action.
Background: Sturgeon under renewed pressure to cancel exams
Mr Swinney told the Scottish Parliament: "If exams were to take place, these had to be made safe and fair to all pupils.
"The prospects for public health have been improved immeasurably due to the development of a vaccine, but we know that it will unavoidably take time to be rolled out."
Students had "lost significant learning time" and this had been "compounded by the disruption many have suffered as they were obliged to self-isolate, had to learn from home or even saw their school closed".
SQA exams cancelled: 'The level of disruption to learners has not been equal'
He added: "And we know that the level of disruption to learners has not been equal.
"Almost 40 per cent of those who were not in school for more than one-fifth of school openings for a Covid-related reason in S4 are from our poorest communities. In S5 it is 33 per cent, and in S6 it is 26 per cent.
"And, while we hope that public health will improve in the coming months, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to pupils’ learning.
"In light of this, the question is less whether we can hold the exams safely in the spring and more whether we can do so fairly."
Mr Swinney said that "we need a model that is more flexible to the specific circumstances of the individual pupil". He added: "That model exists. It is the model we plan to use to award qualifications this year for National 5s."
He said that a group led by the SQA and also involving directors of education, the EIS union, Colleges Scotland and others had been working on this model.
He added: "Provisional results for individual pupils will be submitted to SQA by 28 May before certificates are awarded on 10 August.
"Details of the model for N5 will be published by the National Qualifications 2021 Group today, a model that focuses on the work and performance of young people during the year. Let me make clear that no algorithm will be used in this exercise."
Mr Swinney said: "It is a model that will be based on learner evidence, subject to quality assurance at local and national level, to deliver a credible and fair set of results.
"It is a model that has achieved a broad level of support across Scotland’s education professionals.
'No algorithm' to award results
"I am therefore announcing today that there will be no Higher or Advanced Higher exams in 2021.
"Instead we will adopt the new model that has been developed and base awards on teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment."
Mr Swinney also announced "an exceptional one-off payment to teachers and lecturers who are critical to assessing and marking N5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses this year".
He said: "In addition, I would ask that secondary schools prioritise all remaining in-service day time to work together on this alternative model of certification for national qualifications. Many schools still have two or three of the five annual in-service days left."
Mr Swinney added: "I will not stake the future of our Higher pupils – whether they get a place at college, university, training or work – on a lottery of whether their school was hit by Covid.
"Exams cannot account for differential loss of learning and could lead to unfair results for our poorest pupils. This could lead to pupils’ futures being blighted through no fault of their own."
The Scottish Conservatives were the only part to object to the move to cancel exams. Education spokesperson Jamie Greene criticised the government’s "months of dither and delay" before making the announcement, which he described as an "admission of complete failure".
He added: "The decision today to cancel Higher exams will come as a disappointment to those who believe that exams offer consistency, fairness and a level playing field."
The Scottish Greens' education spokesperson, Ross Greer, who has for months been pushing for the 2021 exams to be cancelled, tweeted: "At this point SNP exams policy is Green exams policy, just six months late."
Mr Greer said: "What’s essential now is that the Education Secretary stops the SQA repeating its approach to National 5 assessments with the Higher and Advanced Highers.
"Despite Mr Swinney’s categorical assurances to me earlier this year, the SQA has created a system which has massively added to teachers’ workloads, essentially expecting them to take on the huge additional work of an SQA marker.
"Given that Scotland’s school system was already dependent on an average of eleven hours of overtime per teacher per week, this will push many beyond their breaking point and simply cannot be allowed to happen."
Education researcher Barry Black, who recently announced he would be a Labour candidate in the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, said: "This is months late, but a welcome decision."
He added: "My research on recent attendance has clearly shown why a 'normal' exam diet couldn’t be equitable, because the educational experience of Covid has not been equitable.
"The lack of efficient clarity that teachers and pupils have had so far from the SQA this term has been woeful. This, of course, adds to that."
The EIS teaching union, the country’s largest, has welcomed the fact that a decision has been made on next year’s Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications, but has indicated that agreement must be reached on appropriate recognition of the additional workload required in any alternative assessment programme.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The EIS has every confidence in the ability of teachers to make professional judgements based on pupil evidence, and in the circumstances believes that cancelling the exam diet in favour of an alternative model is the correct decision, [albeit] one which could have been made earlier.
"We have raised repeatedly, however, the additional workload burden which this will generate and made clear that teachers should not be treated as unpaid SQA markers. The deputy first minister’s commitment, therefore, to make additional payments to teachers is welcome but the devil will be in the detail. The EIS will engage further with the Scottish government on this matter."
Mr Flanagan added: "Today’s announcement acknowledges the significant level of disruption that students have faced during the pandemic. It is essential that all possible steps are taken to ensure that no young person is unfairly disadvantaged as a result of becoming ill or being required to self-isolate due to Covid-19.
"Given the significant impact of the pandemic on many young people, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, today’s announcement is a common-sense decision that is in the best interests of students."