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SQA Awards 2021 - Plans For Highers To Go Ahead But National 5 Exams Replaced

7th October 2020

Plans have been announced for Higher and Advanced Higher exams to go ahead in 2021, while National 5 exams will be replaced by a system where grades are awarded based on coursework and teacher judgement.

It means the volume of exams that will take place will be reduced by half, lowering public health risks and allowing plans for Higher and Advanced Highers to proceed.

In a statement to Parliament, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic, combined with the fact that pupils have already lost significant study time as a result of the lockdown last academic year, meant that the normal exam plans were simply not possible.

Replacing the National 5 exams makes space in the timetable to push the Higher and Advanced Higher exams back until May, making up some of the lost learning time. These exams will now begin on 13 May, around two weeks later than usual.

A clear contingency plan will, however, be put in place in case it proves impossible for Higher and Advanced Higher exams to go ahead due to public health advice.

National 5 awards will generally be based on two to four pieces of work per subject that will be formally graded by teachers. The SQA will publish guidance for teachers on evidence gathering and estimation, and subject-specific guidance on the key pieces of work that young people will need to complete. The SQA will also work with schools and colleges throughout the year to quality assure the assessment of learners' work.

Replacing National 5 exams was recommended by Professor Mark Priestley in his independent review into the events following the cancellation of exams in 2020. His report has also been published today.

Mr Swinney said:"Pupils have already lost a significant amount of learning time because of coronavirus (COVID-19). My priority is to ensure that learning is assessed fairly and consistently so that pupils can be confident in the results they gain.

"Given the real risk of further disruption to education, it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet in 2021. Coronavirus has not gone away. If anything, it is making a comeback.

"In a normal exam year, National 5s constitute more than half of all exams taken. From a public health point of view, not running these exams significantly reduces risk. National 5 pupils will receive awards based on their coursework and the judgement of their teachers, with robust quality assurance. We have learned lessons from this year's initial SQA gradings - there will be no algorithm for moderating grades in 2021.

"By replacing National 5 exams, we can hold an exam diet for Highers and Advanced Highers if public health guidance allows - these are the qualifications most pupils leave schools with that determine paths into work, college, or university.

"None of us can predict the coming weeks and months, so clear contingency plans are being developed should, for public health reasons, the exams have to be replaced. In those circumstances and only if necessary, we will award Higher and Advanced Higher grades based on teacher judgement, supported by SQA quality assurance, taking account of assessment evidence.

"My decisions on the 2021 exam diet were informed by Professor Priestley's recommendations, widespread consultation by the SQA on the exams timetable and course assessment modifications, and by listening to the views of pupils, teachers, parents, education experts, local authorities and other stakeholders.

“We will continue to closely monitor public health advice and review arrangements as necessary. This will include key check-points up to the February break to assess public health advice and, in light of that, our plans."


John Swinney's speech in Parliament on 7 October 2020

As we have just heard from the First Minister, further restrictions are now necessary in order to bring R back below 1, stop the virus running out of control and save lives.

This is not, however, a return to the spring. We are not closing schools.

Instead, keeping them open is the priority.

We all know just how disruptive COVID-19 is to the awarding of national qualifications.

We found ourselves in a position where schools had closed with very little time to prepare. Course work was either incomplete or inaccessible.

And, of course, the exams could not go ahead.

There was no ready-made solution - we saw that from the fact the rest of the UK faced similar difficulties - but, in setting out our solution, the fact is we did not get it right for all young people. We apologised and we acted to fix the situation.

This year we have more time to prepare, but some things are still the same.

The virus remains with us.

It is still as virulent. It is still as infectious.

So, we cannot plan for business as usual. That is simply not possible.

Work towards exams would normally start back in May when the schools were still closed so pupils have already lost a significant amount of precious teaching time. And, we cannot predict – no-one can - how much more time might be lost to Covid-19 in the coming months.

Finally, we simply don't know what Spring and Summer will look like in terms of the public health position.

But, what we can do is three key things:

we can learn from last year;

we can consult our teachers and educationalists; and

we can listen to the experts in the design of awarding systems.

And in every decision we take, we can hold fast to our shared aim to build an approach that recognises the hard work of individual pupils fairly and consistently.

It must be an approach that does not place undue burdens on them or on Scotland's teachers.

And, it has to be an approach that has the confidence of the public, of employers and of the rest of the education system.

That is what we have been doing over recent weeks and I can now set out to parliament the progress we have made and the conclusions we have reached.

We have sought to learn from last year.

As I set out previously to Parliament, I commissioned two key pieces of work.

I asked the OECD to extend the scope of their review of Curriculum for Excellence to include the question of the role exams should play in a modern educational system.

That work will go forward in the coming months but to inform the coming year, I asked Professor Mark Priestley to carry out an independent review looking at events following the cancellation of the examination diet.

Professor Priestley has submitted his report and recommendations and I want to thank him and his team at Stirling University for their excellent work and, in particular, for the pace at which they have completed it.

Presiding Officer

We have also consulted widely.

The SQA set out its initial proposals on modifications to assessments in 2021 and, it is fair to say, they have never seen a more extensive response. Thousands of individual submissions were received. I want to thank everyone who took the time to engage with that work.

I have personally consulted with young people including with pupils in their senior phase who I spent valuable time in discussion with last Thursday.

We have heard the views of parents, of teachers and of our colleges and universities.

And the issues have been discussed with stakeholders across our education system, including those represented on the Education Recovery and Qualifications Contingency Groups.

And, of course, I have consulted medical and scientific experts.

Presiding Officer,

Finally, we have listened to the experts in the design of awarding systems in the SQA, but also from our professional bodies, our local authorities, our schools and Education Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that all of this work comes at a time when the broader picture is one of an education system that has successfully returned to full-time learning.