‘Some exam papers are already on TikTok’

Scottish teachers say the exam replacement system is ‘a shambles’ – but those behind it say no one has come up with a better model

Emma Seith

Kids on TikTOk

Teachers have told Tes Scotland that the way pupils are being assessed this year is “utter chaos” – with several reporting pupils are already sharing exam questions on social media.

One teacher said: “Schools are trying their best but it really is a shambles.”

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has provided schools – via its secure website – with the unused 2020 exam papers for subjects at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher so they can be used “as internal assessments for gathering candidate evidence”.


Background: Scotland's 2021 exams cancelled by education secretary

News: Call for government to rethink exam replacement plans

School leader’s take: ‘Saying there’s no need for exams lets down schools’

Teacher’s take: Why teachers' worst fears over exams have come true

SQA: 'No requirement to replicate full formal exams'

The 2020 qualifications fiasco: 12 key messages from experts who explored the SQA debacle


However, because pupils are sitting these papers at different times, given that assessment arrangements differ between schools, one teacher said: “SQA secure exam paper is a fiasco, with many pupils passing on questions via social media.”

Another teacher said their Higher pupils had said “several of the papers they believe they will be sitting are already on [social media video-sharing platform] TikTok”.

Tes Scotland received information from over a dozen school leaders, principal teachers and classroom teachers about how evidence is being gathered to support the grading of national qualifications this year, following the cancellation of the exams.

The SQA has insisted that there is no need to "replicate full formal exams or prelims this year".

However, all the teachers who spoke to Tes Scotland were either running assessments in controlled conditions, or were building towards pupils sitting them later this term.

One school was having a three-week assessment block beginning later this month, with pupils sitting “full papers” in the games hall.

Another school was spreading assessments out over a six-week period, with assessments one week, and then a break the next. In that school the assessments were taking place in the classroom, with each lasting no more than a double period.

One school leader said they thought most schools were opting for one of three models: pupils doing assessments in all subjects immediately after Easter, with a “final exam” later; pupils working towards later assessments, but with the paper split into two parts, so it could be done in class time; or pupils working towards one final assessment in an exam hall.

The depute said their school was doing the latter to avoid putting “unfair pressure on pupils” and having them sit “20 exams between April and June”. However, the depute conceded that the downside is “it’s almost a one-dart throw”.

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of secondary headteachers’ organisation School Leaders Scotland (SLS), said it was “perfectly legitimate” that schools were taking a range of different approaches to assessing their pupils “given no child’s or school’s experience will have been the same since they came back in August”. Ultimately, all the evidence gathered would be assessed against the same standards, he said.

However, Mr Thewliss, who sits on the group charged with designing the alternative certification model, the National Qualifications 2021 Group, added that waiting to run assessments as late as possible in the school year is “not the model I would have gone for, or would recommend”.

He said: “The National Qualifications 2021 Group says to concentrate on learning and teaching and when it’s appropriate carry out assessment – but don’t bank it all until the end of the term because who knows what’s going to happen between now and then for individual youngsters.”

He added: “The system that replaced the exams was never going to be perfect but all the way along no one has come up with a better way of doing it than the alternative certification model.

“But one of the challenges has been nobody predicted the kids being out of school from January to March. That means all the assessment has had to be crammed into the period after Easter – but that was why the period for submitting grades was extended to June 25.”

Meanwhile Maureen McKenna Glasgow’s director of education argues in an article for Tes Scotland, published today, that the assessments being carried out by schools are not the same as an exam diet.

She argues school plans for gathering evidence are “flexible and responsive with back up plans – just in case pupils have to self-isolate or are not having the best day”.

However, teachers insist all the assessment is taking its toll on them and their pupils.

One teacher said their pupils were “pale and tired” and “shattered”; another said their pupils were only in their second week of assessments but were already “like shells of humans”. 

“They are exhausted and have lost any sort of teenage spark,” said the principal teacher.

When it came to the impact on teacher workload, one teacher – who has been in the job for over a decade – said: “This is hands down the worst time in my career. The expectation that we are superhuman is horrific.”

School staff are having to set, mark and moderate the assessments, with those delivering courses selected for national quality assurance saying it is an added burden, and that it means more workload and more paperwork.

Another issue raised was the pressure to find sufficient numbers of staff to act as invigilators, as well as readers and scribes for senior pupils with additional support needs.

One teacher said their school was trying to use text-to-speech technology as a result of a lack of staff to support pupils, but there were issues with having a sufficient number of devices and the school wifi was “awful”.

That teacher also pointed out all the additional administration teachers were having to do, from photocopying scripts on different coloured paper, to enlarging maps – all of which would usually be done by SQA.

Another teacher said all the focus on assessing senior pupils and getting them up to speed was having a “huge knock on [effect]” for pupils in S1-3, given that S3 pupils would usually start on their national courses when senior pupils went off on study leave – but this year there is no study leave.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) general secretary, Seamus Searson, described the situation as a “free for all”. He said that teachers should be told “not to tie themselves in knots gathering evidence” and that they should have the flexibility to make sure pupils get the grades they deserve.

Mr Searson said: “Teachers professional judgement has been taken away to the detriment of the youngsters and the system. A teacher might know in their heart that this is an A candidate but they might only have evidence for a C.

“That’s a real hardship for the teachers and the pupils who are not going to get the result they are expecting and who are going to have their life chances diminished as a result. We need to trust the teachers to come up with the right results.”

Mr Searson pointed out that, when it came to the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs), which run in P1, P4, P7 and S3 they are used to support teacher judgement, with room for teachers to bring their expertise to bear. He argued a similar approach was needed in relation to this year’s national qualifications.

Mr Searson said: “The standardised assessment supports professional judgement – it does not override professional judgment. The same principle should be applied to the evidence gathered for this year’s qualifications.”

An SQA spokesman said schools and colleges had been asked to ensure question papers on SQA's secure website "are treated confidentially" and to "maintain the security of assessment materials"

The body would investigate "any potential breaches of security of assessment materials", said the spokesman.

He added: “We fully appreciate that this is a challenging time for learners across Scotland. The National Qualifications 2021 Group, which includes teachers and lecturers, has co-created this year’s alternative certification model. 

“The group has been clear that there is no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet this year and that results need to be based on demonstrated attainment by assessment in a flexible way to suit local circumstances.

“SQA has provided a flexible and consistent framework for schools and colleges this year, including detailed guidance, material and support, based on assessment standards that teachers and lecturers are familiar with.”

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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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