Scotland exams cancellation 'does nothing' to reduce unfairness of school Covid-19 impact

Leading education experts have warned John Swinney that he must not repeat the failings of 2020’s exam results fiasco and commit to an appeals process that means no child faces “a second year of being failed by the SQA and the Scottish Government”.

John Swinney has been warned more clarity is needed around the cancellation of exams

Writing in the Scotland on Sunday today, children’s rights expert Dr Tracy Kirk calls on the education secretary to develop a human rights compliant appeals system for 2021 after children were “cast aside” during the appeals process this year.

It comes as the education secretary was warned by Professor Lindsay Paterson, one of Scotland’s leading education policy experts, his decision to cancel National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers “does nothing” to balance the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on some pupils.

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The Edinburgh University academic said unfairness for pupils from the loss of learning was likely to remain ingrained in any alternative model due to doubts over the SQA’s approach overcoming biases in the system.

Dr Tracy Kirk, a children's rights expert and law lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University

Dr Kirk, a lecturer in law at Glasgow Caledonian University, argues not enough is being done to ensure those with protected characteristics are not missed by the system as they were in 2020.

She states: “The very limited appeals process the Priestley review stated was ‘both unnecessary and counter-productive’ has compounded the failures faced by these pupils.

"However, still the Scottish Government and SQA have taken no action taken to ensure that these young people have the futures they deserve.”

Dr Kirk adds it is still unclear whether similar problems will arise in 2021 and says the cancellation of exams has caused a “haze of uncertainty”, calling for a “degree of clarity” to be given to teachers.

These concerns were echoed by Professor Paterson who highlighted several issues blocking rectification of the problem of loss of learning.

He warned the alternative model could lead to “pseudo-exams" taking place through the use of past papers, with pupils sitting them later in the year “at an advantage” due to more time for revision.

Professor Paterson added schools could have pupils sit small sections of sample or past papers at different points in the year, leading to a “time-related bias” for those answering questions on recently studied material, the opposite problem to ‘pseudo-exams’.

Other concerns include the lack of emphasis on coursework or portfolios from some schools, particularly after the SQA cancelled most Higher coursework when the National 5s cancellation was announced.

This could see those who continued to do this work at an advantage to schools scrambling to complete it in order to provide the SQA with appropriate quality evidence of pupil attainment.

Prof Paterson added: “The cancelling of exams and the development of alternative assessment does nothing to reduce the unfairness that has resulted from the loss of learning.

"The loss of learning will happen regardless of anything that John Swinney said yesterday, and regardless of anything the SQA might now do.

"Literally the same mistakes will probably not be made again, because Mr Swinney has said there will not be a return to the infamous algorithm.

"But unfairness will remain because I doubt if the SQA’s approach to alternative assessment can overcome the biases that are likely to be present in the system.”

The issue of vaccinations and their potential impact on schools could also exacerbate problems if it means schools in low prevalence areas are able to return to normal sooner than those in higher tiers of restrictions, leading to a further differentiation in teaching and therefore fairness.

In response, the Scottish Government said fairness is at the heart of their approach, with 2021’s assessment models set to be “more flexible” than last year.

A spokesperson said: “Fairness was at the heart of the decision to replace Higher and Advanced Higher exams with certification based on teachers’ judgement of pupil attainment. The alternative certification model is more flexible and takes account of the reality of the disruption so many pupils have already had to their learning.

“In light of Professor Mark Priestley’s independent review into the events following the cancellation of the 2020 exams, we have asked the SQA to review their appeals system from 2021 to ensure it best meets the needs of young people in line with the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

“That review involves working closely with key stakeholders, including learners and their representative groups, as well as the Children’s Commissioner. Details of the SQA appeals process for 2021 will be set out in due course.”

However, opposition politicians have warned urgent clarification is needed on both the appeals system and guidance around the evidence teachers are required to gather.

In 2020, the SQA’s assessment model was released on results day, with 125,000 pupils seeing their results marked down due to the application of a statistical model.

Protests forced Mr Swinney into an embarrassing u-turn on the moderation process, with all original teacher estimates awarded to pupils.

Jamie Greene MSP, the Scottish Conservative’s spokesperson for education, said: “John Swinney has plunged pupils and teachers into endless uncertainty throughout this pandemic.

“Now we know the 2021 are cancelled we need urgent clarification on the appeals process – as the SQA moderation this year lacked in fundamental fairness and equity.

“It’s also vital guidance is released on Higher and Advanced Higher assessment and grading process which teachers will have been lumbered with.

“The Education Secretary lost another important vote in Parliament week on this very issue, such is the lack of confidence in his handling of Scottish education.

“The absolute fiasco we saw this year, which led to mass protests on our streets, simply cannot happen again or Mr Swinney will once again feel the wrath of anger of our students.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson added: “We cannot have a re-run of last year’s catastrophe.

"John Swinney needs to explain urgently how he will prevent another postcode lottery in results that will hit the most deprived students the hardest.”

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