Teachers slam efforts to 'replicate' normal school year

Teachers say new SQA guidance on assessing Highers following exams cancellation 'adds nothing'

Emma Seith

Teachers slam efforts to 'replicate' normal school year

Scottish teachers have been keenly awaiting guidance on how to assess Higher pupils following the cancellation of the exams in December.

However, some have said that new information published this week by Scotland’s exam body, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), “really adds nothing” and fails to acknowledge the current lockdown, as well as the “disruption and loss” suffered during the pandemic.

One depute head and English teacher told Tes Scotland: “There were over 1,800 Covid-related deaths in the UK on Wednesday. On the same day, the SQA guidance for Higher and Advanced Higher English was published.

“Reading the guidance in isolation, it would be difficult to imagine that we are in the midst of such terrible loss and disruption. There is far too much of an attempt to replicate much of what would happen in a normal school year and nowhere enough recognition of the disruption and loss pupils, families and teachers have experienced.”


Background: Scotland's 2021 exams cancelled by education secretary

News: Teachers could get more time to submit estimates

Exclusive: Cancelled exams save SQA almost £20m

Opinion: 'Prelims aren't perfect – but as good as it gets'


The new guidance – published on Wednesday and Thursday – is similar to that issued in November, following the cancellation of the 2021 National 5 exams the previous month.

For many subjects, the guidance emphasises the need for quality of evidence, rather than quantity, and advocates using papers for the now-scrapped 2021 Higher exam papers in part or in full, which the SQA says it will release on its secure website. The advice for many subjects is also that the teacher can use past papers or papers set by schools to support teacher estimates.

One teacher who contacted Tes Scotland summed up the guidance on gathering evidence for English as: “Make the kids sit the entire exam – albeit chunked into smaller parts if necessary.”

The teacher added: “[The new guidance] really adds nothing. It's just repeating what was there before…but there’s still an expectation that we do the entire course.  

“I genuinely cannot fathom why it's taken so long for this to come out, given it says nothing that wasn't said before.”

On Twitter, many teachers questioned how – given the current lockdown – pupils were supposed to sit these assessments.

One teacher said it was as if the SQA was “entirely unaware of the global pandemic and ongoing lockdown”; another said that the guidance offered no advice “for gathering evidence during lockdown”.

Another teacher said: “What if we’re not back in school and can’t do the last unit of the prelim? Silence. What about the kids who didn’t do well in the prelim and who we were expecting to [be] assess[ed] again over this term? Silence.

A secondary headteacher told Tes Scotland that the lack of clarity was starting to affect students’ motivation.

The headteacher said: “With no clarity about when or how assessment will happen, many are starting to disengage. They are being asked to go on blind trust – at some point you will be assessed, somehow, but that’s not really good enough.

“This isn’t just the view of staff – it’s the clear message I’m getting from parents as well. It’s incredibly difficult for students to stay motivated for something which is hypothetical.”

Another issue raised was that the SQA recommends using the 2021 Higher exam paper “as an internal assessment for gathering candidate evidence” but it was pointed out that once these exam questions started being used in schools “they’re no longer secure, so you no longer have a level playing field”.

The SQA says in its guidance for Higher English: “If you use a question paper in part or in its entirety, you should remind candidates that they must not discuss the content of the paper with anyone, including friends, family or on social media.”

However, University of Edinburgh’s professor of education policy Lindsay Paterson has already said anyone who expects that to happen “has lost touch with reality”.

Another secondary head pointed out that – unlike last year – the current SQA model did not have an “inferred attainment” element which would allow teachers to make their judgements based on where they would expect pupils to be had their education not been interrupted.

The head said: “If not addressed we will be baking in inequality again, as those with better IT access, or who did not get ill, or have to isolate, will do better. The SQA will have to address this, hopefully sooner rather than later.”  

A depute headteacher, meanwhile, predicted that the moment schools returned many students would be “placed on an assessment treadmill”, unless SQA made significant changes to its requirements.

“There needs to be far more optionality and reduction of course content or far more emphasis on teacher judgement over assessment evidence,” he said.

“How can a young person who has had to isolate three times, lost a family member to Covid and experienced two periods of school closure within a calendar year produce assessment evidence that matches normal standards? Why are we asking them to?”

The SQA has been at pains to stress that this year’s replacement for the exams is being “co-created” by the National Qualifications 2021 Group which includes the SQA, as well as education directors’ body ADES; curriculum and inspection body Education Scotland; secondary school leaders’ organisation SLS; and the EIS teaching union, among others.  

Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee last week, the SQA’s chief executive, Fiona Robertson, said the group was working through “a range of scenarios”, including what could happen if remote learning continued “for a long time”.

Some of the scenarios being considered by the group were for pupils in the exam years to be prioritised for the return to “in-class teaching” or that they could come back to school for “assessment purposes”, she said.

The latest advice from the National Qualifications 2021 Group – published on Tuesday of last week – said that the focus for schools and colleges during January “should be to maximise learning and teaching time”. It added that assessment could be undertaken “in the later states of the 2020-21 session”.

This evening, an SQA spokesperson said: “We anticipated disruption to learners so delivered modifications to assessments which would free up teaching and learning time while maintaining standards. These modifications reduce the amount of evidence required and add flexibility when gathering evidence.

“Given the fast-changing disruption, the National Qualifications 2021 Group is working through a range of scenarios and options, including extending the date for submitting provisional results. In the meantime, the group has made clear that the focus during this time should be on learning and teaching. 

“The National Qualifications Group agreed that an alternative certification model should be based on evidence so that it is fair to all learners. We also agreed that it was important to publish guidance and assessment resources when available.

The SQA spokesperson added: “Our guidance is clear that question papers provided be treated in the same way as other live assessment materials, to maintain integrity in the system. Theses question papers can be used in whole or part according to needs of the centre and their learners, but we have been clear that there is no need to replicate a full exam setting.”

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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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