SQA exams: Why smaller school assessments are prolonging the agony

As we come to the end of a mental health awareness week, many young people await news about the Scottish Qualifications Authority appeals process for 2021.

The importance of getting an appeals process that upholds the rights of tens of thousands of students is highlighted by the continuing impact 2020 is having on the lives of our young people.

This article is co-written by Crista Arthur and Mia Moohan, two students impacted by SQA processes in 2020 and 2021, who ask for a human rights compliant, direct appeals process that recognises individual extenuating circumstances to ensure no student is unfairly penalised due to the pandemic.

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For those of us who left school in 2020, SQA processes should be behind us.

Heather Barbour, 17, from Fraserburgh Academy attends a protest over SQA exams. Picture: John Devlin

However, the requirement to rank students in the SQA alternative certification model of 2020 meant teachers could not award us the grades they said we were capable of throughout the year – formally on our UCAS applications and verbally at parent’s evenings and in class.

Instead, we were awarded our prelim results.

This was despite a culture at many schools where prelims were nothing to be worried about nor were the grades achieved important.

Last year’s students were unaware of the pandemic when they sat their prelims.

Therefore, it seems unjustifiable that some have been forced to accept grades achieved in these prelims instead of being permitted an appeal that examines holistic evidence, including UCAS estimates, personal circumstances and previous attainment in both prelims and exams, where available.

The encouragement from our schools to focus on work experience and interviews instead of our prelims, to help our progression onto university, was well meant.

However, it has left many of us without university places more than a year after sitting those prelims.

The lack of appeal for these students has left them in limbo awaiting news which will decide their futures – the Deputy First Minister’s Office is still considering our request for appeals.

For many young people, the 2020 results fiasco has cost them their university places in 2021.

After many students lost university places last year, it was always going to be more competitive this year. However, some of us are only now realising that we are victims of SQA 2020.

With some young people trying to emphasise the pressure many are feeling as they try to sit ‘exams’ while waiting on university and college responses through UCAS, it’s important to realise this academic year is very different to the ‘average’ year.

In December, we were told that exams were cancelled.

However, this turned out not to be the case – official SQA exams were cancelled, but little else.

Despite students missing education due to situations caused by the pandemic, including self-isolation, caring responsibilities, digital poverty, home learning, and lockdown stresses more generally, students are still facing the same pressure to perform to the best of their abilities under ‘exam’ conditions.

We continue to hear people arguing that students sit exams every year, so there is no real difference, but instead of study leave and exams that are well spread out, we have ‘exams’ almost constantly over a seven to eight-week period with learning in classes between our assessments.

There is no time to think. The focus on lots of smaller assessments is prolonging the agony and adding to our stress – despite our teachers doing the best they can to support us.

This stress is amplified by the inconsistency across schools. While some schools are allowing pupils to resit assessments to see if they can perform better, other schools are only allowing their pupils to sit an assessment once.

Young people have been adversely affected during the pandemic and this has ultimately taken a toll on our mental health. However, the SQA processes of 2021 do not currently make allowances for this.

It is our hope the SQA will imminently announce a direct appeals process that is human rights compliant and takes an individualised and holistic approach, so no student from 2020 or 2021 continues to suffer detriment in their attempt to reach positive destinations.

No more ticking boxes – fix what must be fixed.

- Written by Crista Arthur, aged 18 and Mia Moohan, aged 17 with Dr Tracy Kirk


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