The Scottish Government said that National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams will be held next spring “if public health advice allows” – but said two contingency plans would remain in place in case of disruption due to the pandemic.
The announcement 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.
But politicians warned the possibility of three different scenarios would mean extra work for teachers – and uncertainty for pupils.
The Scottish Government said the decision has been informed by public health advice and by the views of partners, including those on the National Qualifications Group, which includes representatives of young people, parents, teachers and other education professionals.
Course content has already been reduced compared to a normal year to take account of the disruption to learning that young people have experienced.
These modifications have already been confirmed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
The Scottish Government is to scrap the SQA and reform Education Scotland following a report into Scotland’s education system by the OECD earlier this year. The report also called for reform of Scotland’s assessment system, saying that it is too exams-heavy.
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart said: “Requiring teachers to simultaneously plan for three separate eventualities may mean yet more workload strains. With some teachers still without jobs, the Scottish Government must make more permanent jobs available to help ease those burdens.
“While an announcement at this point in time is welcome, it will be difficult for teachers, pupils and parents to have faith in these plans when the system continues to be presided over by the same people who caused such disruption and upset both this year and last."
She added: “The lack of accountability at the top chipped away at the little trust that was left. The SQA needs to be reformed for the recovery and that includes reconsidering who is in charge.”
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said: “The SNP had the entire summer period to give clarity on exams. The fact that they have only now given this belated update after the majority of schools have returned is a dereliction of duty.
“SNP ministers have still failed to give an outright guarantee that exams will definitely go ahead next year. That will only serve to create more uncertainty for pupils, teachers and parents who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic.”
He added: “The SNP have presided over a shambolic and chaotic exam system over the last couple of years.”
Teachers’ union the EIS said it would have preferred for National 5 exams to be scrapped for S4 students this year.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “It is no surprise that the Scottish Government has stated its intention to reinstate an exam diet in 2022, should public health advice allow.
"The EIS would have preferred to see exams by-passed for S4 students in the interests of supporting education recovery and wellbeing among this cohort. It remains to be seen whether the reductions in course content for this year, as recognition that young people have been adversely affected by the pandemic through no fault of their own, will suffice.
“It is essential that appropriate and robust contingencies are in place should it be necessary to cancel the exam diet on public health grounds. We saw earlier this year the damage caused by decisions being made too late without adequate contingences in place and the huge workload and stress that was placed on students and staff as a result.”
“In the longer term, the process of reviewing the qualifications system and replacing the SQA must learn lessons from recent experience.
"The EIS has long been concerned regarding the lack of accountability of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to the teaching profession and the over-emphasis placed on annual high-stakes exams at the expense of continuous assessment.”
Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “Exams will take place next year if safe to do so. Fairness for learners sitting exams in 2022 is at the heart of our plans.
"Assessment modifications across national courses for the next academic session have already been confirmed by the SQA in recognition of the disruption to learning that young people have experienced. We will set out details on further support available for learners in September.”
She added: “Careful contingency planning has taken place in case there is further significant disruption to learning or if public health conditions do not allow for the holding of an examination diet.”
The SQA said teachers should gather examples of learners’ work and keep a record of any assessments that take place throughout the session, such as prelims, practical performances or class tests, to be prepared for an alternative scenario. Additional assessments will not take place.
Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “[The] SQA understands the need to provide teachers, lecturers, parents, carers and learners with clear and timely information regarding assessments in 2022.
"Now that the Scottish Government has confirmed exams will be held if safe to do so, I look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the whole education system to deliver credible qualifications for Scotland’s learners."