Shirley-Anne Somerville said that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which is due to be scrapped under a sweeping reform of Scotland’s assessment system, would look at the public health situation and together with ministers, would decide how assessments would be structured by the end of March.
However, critics warned that March was too late for both pupils and teachers to prepare.
This is the third year that exams have been disrupted by Covid. In 2020, teachers assigned grades to pupils based on coursework, while in 2021, schools were given freedom to structure their own exam-based assessments.
In the summer, the Scottish Government said that it hoped exams would go ahead as normal this year “if safe to do so”, but that there were two other alternatives it would consider if the pandemic was not under control.
Ms Somerville said: “The very latest we think it can be made is the end of March, but it doesn't have to wait until then. There's obviously very close assessment of different measures - whether it's absence rates, disruption to learning. how things are going in general around schools - a basket of measures, constantly being looked at by the SQA.
"And if they feel that they're at that point in consultation with ministers, they will of course make sure that they're discussing this with the National Qualifications group, which includes parents and young people, and the unions, to make sure that they are all on board and recognise the decisions that the SQA are taking and why they're taking it. So we will keep this under very close review. I understand that the build up to exams is a stressful time for young people in any year, but during a Covid year, of course, even more so, so you can be reassured that we are looking at that very very closely."
In the summer, the Scottish Government said that National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams would be held in the spring “if public health advice allows” – but said two contingency plans would remain in place in case of disruption due to the pandemic.
It said that if there was further significant disruption to learning as a result of Covid-19, but it was still safe for exams to go ahead, there would be further modifications to courses and assessment. Meanwhile, if public health conditions do not allow for an exam diet to take place, awards will be made on teachers’ judgements based on normal in-year assessment – as happened in the 2019/20 academic year.
Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra said: “Labour pointed out at the time of announcement last year that waiting until the end of March to make these decisions is ridiculous for young people, families and teachers. The pupils of Scotland have now endured years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic and the SNP government has continually failed to lead from the front.
“What is key is to ensure that equity is a priority within the system. In December, I wrote to the cabinet secretary seeking clarity on the criteria decisions on exams will be made. Clarity is urgently needed.”
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said: "The SNP appear to have learned no lessons from the last exams fiasco. March is far too late to ask pupils and teachers to prepare adequately.
"A third year of last-minute disruption is unacceptable. It would mean many pupils going through the entire senior phase with this cloud over them. Instead of unhelpful speculation the SNP should instead be focusing on keeping our schools open and keeping our kids in classrooms where they learn best."
Course content has already been reduced compared to a normal year to take account of the disruption to learning that young people have experienced.
The exams row comes as a teacher and education campaigner criticised the Scottish Government for not developing a robust ventilation system in schools almost two years on in the pandemic.
Nuzhat Uthmani, of Scottish Teachers for Positive Change and Wellbeing (STPCW), said it is “unfathomable” that, for a second winter, staff are having to keep doors and windows open, and ask pupils to layer up.
She said it is “shocking” that ministers are not investing in air filtration units in schools to help keep them safer from Covid spreading further.
Ms Uthmani said: “It is unacceptable at this point in the pandemic for schools to have to tell their young people at the start of term to dress warmly.
“A number of schools have had to say that because windows and doors need to be kept open because we have nothing else.”
She added: “All we have is windows and doors to open, and it’s very cold. It seems unfathomable that schools are having to ask children to dress warmly as opposed to the Government putting things in place.”
Ms Uthmani, who is also an activist for Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said members of STPCW have written a letter to Holyrood ministers and opposition MSPs raising their concerns about what little has been done to install better ventilation systems.
She said the group has had little response and “none at all from any government ministers”.
“We’ve had summer 2020, we’ve had summer 2021, we’ve had two winters and two periods of long lockdown where all these things could have been put in place,” she said.
“Yet nothing has happened to improve ventilation in our schools.”
Ms Uthmani added: “We really need to have proper air filtration systems – they can be mobile units, for example.
“We’ve seen lots of countries around the world investing in those so that every class has a has a source of clean filtration. Even England has now made a move to start to order those and I would really like to know from the cabinet secretary when these are on order for Scottish schools.”
Education secretary Ms Somerville said the importance of ventilation “is absolutely recognised”.
She pointed to the Scottish Government’s £90 million for mitigation measures earlier in the pandemic, which included ventilation advice, and another £10 million for Co2 monitoring.