First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the decision for pupils to return had been taken following an assessment of relevant data, and will see the relaxation of the the rule on two metre social distancing between older pupils.
But while the move was welcomed, many complained of “mixed messages” over the “alternative certifications” students will be expected to complete instead of exams.
It follows calls from students and teachers for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the body responsible for exams, to scrap its guidance on assessments in 2021. A petition for the body to reconsider final assessments, which have “the exact same purpose” as exams, has gained almost 7,000 signatures.
The SQA said students were not required to take a full formal exam or prelims this year, and that the body had provided schools with “detailed guidance, material and support, based on assessment standards that teachers and lecturers are familiar with”.
Asked about the issue on Tuesday, the First Minister said there will be “no requirement” to replicate a full exam or prelim.
"The awarding of qualifications for this year will be based on teacher judgement of evidence of the attainment of each learner,” she said.
"It won’t be based on past results and it won’t be based on an algorithm, which caused all of the problems last year. There are local and national quality assurance processes in place that are designed to ensure consistency and accuracy in applying the national standards. That model was developed by the national qualifications group, and that includes teacher representation.
“A lot of young people have raised concerns about whether they are effectively going to have to do something that replicates a full, formal exam.
"There is no requirement to replicate a full exam or a prelim this year – teacher judgement is at the centre of this. The SQA is currently also consulting on draft proposals for appeals to make sure there is another level there that is about giving assurance and ensuring fairness.
"We will continue to seek to address concerns and to build the confidence of young people in particular in the system this year. “
Some pupils, parents and teachers expressed anger at Ms Sturgeon’s comments on social media.
"Tell that to my timetable of 14 assessments (exams) over the next seven weeks,” said one.
"Sorry if we're a bit confused - it's just that I'm currently studying for several timed assessments under exam conditions which will take place in the main school hall...” another commented.
Scottish Greens education spokesman, Ross Greer, said on Twitter Ms Sturgeon’s comment was “verging on gaslighting teachers and pupils”.
And Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Jamie Greene said: “The last thing pupils and teachers need is more confusion and mixed messages about what is expected of them.
"Nicola Sturgeon seems oblivious to the fact that thousands of pupils have raised concerns they will be sitting exams in all but name.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teachers’ union said the advice which has been given to schools is that pupils will be expected to perform under “controlled conditions”.
"The advice is clear to schools that estimates have to be based on actual evidence and that evidence will have been produced under controlled conditions whether it is coursework style or classroom assessments,” a spokesperson said.
"There should be no requirement for any school to attempt to replicate the process of running a diet of exams.”
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association blamed confusion on the SQA.
“The SQA have caused this problem putting pressure on schools to provide evidence to be the focus for the estimated grade of pupils,” a spokesperson said.
"The SQA is only looking at evidence that is mainly in written form. It makes no allowance for the teacher to make a professional judgement based upon their knowledge of the pupil that is not recorded.
"Teachers have engaged with pupils and can assess the ability of the pupils and award a grade that the pupil merits. This would allow teachers to take into account and give credit to those pupils that have had difficulties during the pandemic.
“The SQA process will only further punish the disadvantaged pupils and widen the attainment gap.
“The SQA must support teachers in making professional judgements and focus on the continuation of teaching and learning for the rest of this school session. To carry on they will only tie pupils and teachers in bureaucratic and unnecessary tasks.”
An SQA spokesperson said the body appreciates that “this is an anxious time for young people across Scotland, after a challenging year.”
"Following the cancellation of exams by the Scottish Government, this year’s alternative certification model has been co-created by the National Qualifications Group with representation from across the education system, including parents and learners,” they said.
"The Group has been clear that there is no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet this year.
“SQA has provided a flexible and consistent framework for schools and colleges this year, including detailed guidance, material and support, based on assessment standards that teachers and lecturers are familiar with.
"We have also reduced the amount of evidence required, given the disruption to learning. The quality of evidence is important, rather than quantity, to ensure confidence in our qualifications system.
“Schools and colleges know their learners best, so it is appropriate that they deliver assessments which suit their circumstances, in discussion with parents, carers and learners. Local and national quality assurance of the evidence will help deliver fairness to learners.”