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13 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:28pm

How Scotland is heading for an even bigger exams debacle

The staggering ineptitude of those who run the Scottish education system has left teachers and pupils in a nightmarish situation.

By Chris Deerin

When is an exam not an exam? In the through-the-looking-glass world of Scottish politics, it’s when the SNP government says so. This belligerence may be about to cause the first scandal of the new Holyrood parliament.

If last year’s school exam fiasco was bad, this year’s looks likely to be worse. And it will have been caused by the staggering ineptitude of those who run the system.

In general, anecdotal evidence of the post-Covid experience inside schools is alarming. Teacher absence is said to be high. Many pupils, though excited to be back in the classroom and to see their friends again in those first few days of reopening, are understood to be struggling to rehabituate themselves to learning and the disciplines of the school day after a year in the wilds. “The kids are basically discombobulated,” says one source.

Meanwhile, the exam structure itself has dissolved into chaos, and mutiny is brewing among teachers and parents. First, they were told this year’s diet was cancelled, and that grades would be awarded based on teacher judgement. It was expected by schools that this would be similar to the system used during last year’s educational emergency, but with improved moderation.

[See also: Andrew Marr’s Diary: A Glasgow homecoming, Scotland’s self-knowledge and what does England want to be?]

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Then everything changed. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) unexpectedly specified a multitude of smaller exams for every subject. It also provided online the question papers and the marking schemes. As a result, schools have quickly had to create complicated timetables covering all these disparate exams over a five-week period. Despite this, Sturgeon insists there are no formal exams this year.

Having put the papers online, the SQA created an obvious hazard. Though it asked pupils and teachers not to share the papers, this, predictably, is what has happened.

With different schools running the same tests on different dates, exam content has been placed, often anonymously, on social media such as TikTok. Sources say that teachers are sharing revision materials specifically targeted at the known content of forthcoming papers, including multiple versions of specific questions to allow for repeated practice. Pupils are being directed to specific past papers for revision.

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One teacher, who has posted several practice tests online that cover the specific content of an SQA exam, admits: “There is no doubt that these quizzes give pupils a big steer towards what to expect, but I think they need every bit of help they can get given the circumstances.” This could be viewed as an understatement, given the extraordinary demands being placed on children. I’m told one parent complained her daughter had 43 papers to sit in five weeks. Amid all this chaos, class teaching is said to have ground to a halt for many S4, S5 and S6 pupils.

[See also: If not now… never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum]

It is the scrupulously honest who are suffering most, a senior education source told me. “Stress levels are through the roof for pupils, because as well as all the revision and stress of sitting multiple exams, some are now worried that they may be seriously disadvantaged by not having had access to the exams ahead of time, or not having teachers who tailored the revision to the exams, or having teachers who have decided not to use the contaminated material but to create their own.” 

Another education expert has spoken to three secondary headteachers who are “outraged” at what they see as attempts by the SQA to blame them for the online sharing of exams. They were not consulted in advance by the agency about the dangers of making the papers so easily available, and if they had been they would have warned against it. Given some of the public statements being made by SQA officials they are worried schools will be forced to carry the can.

“Asking schools to police this activity is plainly absurd,” says a source. “The SQA leadership is clearly not up to the challenges posed. They have shown an astonishing lack of creativity in response to the pandemic, failed to engage with schools and have remained unresponsive.”

There is widespread belief that the SQA is “circling the wagons” ahead of this unspooling disaster. Gill Stewart, director of qualifications development at the authority, has repeatedly used the word “malpractice”, which has ominous legal connotations. She told schools earlier this week that “if you become aware of a candidate malpractice concern, your own centre’s malpractice procedures are to be applied as quickly as possible to contain any potential security breaches. If the malpractice investigation finds that there has been candidate malpractice, then appropriate penalties should be applied.”

This is all taking place amid the general educational chaos caused by Covid. Some pupils are preparing to go to university and college after two years of disruption and with little experience of studying for and sitting exams. There is no sign of any serious attempt by the Scottish government to measure the impact of Covid on Scottish pupils (in England, studies are being carried out by the Educational Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust). And this is all before the long-delayed OECD report on Curriculum for Excellence is published.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon curiously continues to insist there are no exams being sat this year. This Alice in Wonderland approach surely cannot be sustained for much longer without seriously damaging the First Minister’s credibility and reputation for honesty. She is about to appoint her new cabinet and there is speculation about whether deputy first minister John Swinney will remain education secretary. His first spell was fraught and undistinguished enough – but things are about to get much, much worse.

[See also: Is Scotland’s electoral system broken?]