Why Nicola Sturgeon must today cancel Scottish Higher exams - Barry Black

Nicola Sturgeon is due to give an update on whether or not Higher exams will go ahead today. I believe she should take the decision that should have been taken months ago – and cancel them.

A child sits for a school exam. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A child sits for a school exam. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The reason is simple – the planned exam diet is not fair to all pupils from all backgrounds.

Exams rely on broad consistency both across school years and within them.

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Across years they rely on similar rigour and similar learning conditions, so that an A in 2016 counts the same as an A in 2021.

They also rely on a consistent learning experience across the country within the same year – so that an A in Aberdeen is the same as an A in Annan. Neither of these requirements have been met.

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The impact of Covid on education has not been equitable. As always, the most deprived pupils are the most disadvantaged.

Last month, I published research showing that recent attendance rates in schools have reduced compared with previous years due to the pandemic, with the most deprived areas of Scotland experiencing a much bigger impact.

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Scottish Government data also shows that older and more deprived pupils are the most likely to be missing school, meaning a bigger impact on the most deprived young people currently studying for qualifications.

Of the attendance figures published on November 24, there was an 8 per cent gap – a chasm – in attendance between the most and least deprived pupils.

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With the huge disruption that the pandemic has caused, it is near impossible to see how an equitable exam diet is possible.

I made a case for cancelling the 2021 exams back in June, partly because leaving the decision as late as December leaves open the risk to an even more unequal system replacing the exam diet.

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If the First Minister does do the right thing, we must ensure that no return to algorithm based moderation – as used by the SQA this year – is possible.

The Government needs to move rapidly to set out a robust and fair alternative system, so that teachers and pupils know what they will be facing.

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In deciding how young people will be alternatively assessed, the Government and the SQA need to be far more transparent in their approach. They need to deep and sincere engagement with the teaching profession and trust the professional judgement they rightly have.

Most importantly, assessment decisions must be made on the basis of young people’s individual performance and achievement. Anything less will let down Scotland’s young people.

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Barry Black is a postgraduate researcher in Education at the University of Glasgow’s Urban Big Data Centre. He is also a Scottish Labour Candidate for the North East region for May’s Holyrood election.

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