Deputy First Minister John Swinney

Plans for Highers to go ahead; National 5 exams replaced 

Plans have been announced for Higher and Advanced Higher exams to go ahead in 2021, while National 5 exams will be replaced by a system where grades are awarded based on coursework and teacher judgement.

It means the volume of exams that will take place will be reduced by half, lowering public health risks and allowing plans for Higher and Advanced Highers to proceed.

In a statement to Parliament, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic, combined with the fact that pupils have already lost significant study time as a result of the lockdown last academic year, meant that the normal exam plans were simply not possible.

Replacing the National 5 exams makes space in the timetable to push the Higher and Advanced Higher exams back until May, making up some of the lost learning time. These exams will now begin on 13 May, around two weeks later than usual.

A clear contingency plan will, however, be put in place in case it proves impossible for Higher and Advanced Higher exams to go ahead due to public health advice.

National 5 awards will generally be based on two to four pieces of work per subject that will be formally graded by teachers. The SQA will publish guidance for teachers on evidence gathering and estimation, and subject-specific guidance on the key pieces of work that young people will need to complete. The SQA will also work with schools and colleges throughout the year to quality assure the assessment of learners’ work.

Replacing National 5 exams was recommended by Professor Mark Priestley in his independent review into the events following the cancellation of exams in 2020. His report has also been published today.

Mr Swinney said:

“Pupils have already lost a significant amount of learning time because of coronavirus (COVID-19). My priority is to ensure that learning is assessed fairly and consistently so that pupils can be confident in the results they gain.

“Given the real risk of further disruption to education, it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet in 2021. Coronavirus has not gone away. If anything, it is making a comeback.

“In a normal exam year, National 5s constitute more than half of all exams taken. From a public health point of view, not running these exams significantly reduces risk. National 5 pupils will receive awards based on their coursework and the judgement of their teachers, with robust quality assurance. We have learned lessons from this year’s initial SQA gradings - there will be no algorithm for moderating grades in 2021.

“By replacing  National 5 exams, we can hold an exam diet for Highers and Advanced Highers if public health guidance allows – these are the qualifications most pupils leave schools with that determine paths into work, college, or university.

“None of us can predict the coming weeks and months, so clear contingency plans are being developed should, for public health reasons, the exams have to be replaced. In those circumstances and only if necessary, we will award Higher and Advanced Higher grades based on teacher judgement, supported by SQA quality assurance, taking account of assessment evidence.

“My decisions on the 2021 exam diet were informed by Professor Priestley’s recommendations, widespread consultation by the SQA on the exams timetable and course assessment modifications, and by listening to the views of pupils, teachers, parents, education experts, local authorities and other stakeholders.

“We will continue to closely monitor public health advice and review arrangements as necessary. This will include key check-points up to the February break to assess public health advice and, in light of that, our plans.”

Sector Response to Exams in Scotland 

KevinCourtney100x100Commenting on John Swinney’s plans for exams in Scotland in 2021, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

"John Swinney is right to recognise that we cannot predict levels of learning time lost due to Covid in the coming months, nor what summer 2021 will look like in terms of protecting public health. What he has done today is seek to improve the Scottish Government’s Plan A, as well as providing a robust Plan B. This dispels the ridiculous myth propagated by the Government in England that you cannot prepare a contingency at fear it may distract from Plan A. 

"John Swinney’s actions are an example of being contrite and working towards a proper solution. Meanwhile, the Department for Education in England still languishes in a state of denial about this year's fiasco and persists in blaming others. The NEU met with the Schools Minister on Monday and await the conclusions of Ofqual's deliberations in the coming weeks, but there is sadly little sign as yet that a serious Plan B is on the table. 

"Whereas the English Government still resists committing itself to a full independent review of what went wrong in summer 2020, the report commissioned in Scotland has already been delivered and acted upon. Such a delay is not a reflection of deep deliberation, but Gavin Williamson's failure to act matched with an inexcusable tardiness. Teachers, students and parents in England need to have a much clearer picture of what counts in examinations next year, and what form the assessment will take. This is not the time for dithering." 


Professor Priestley review

Scottish Government response

Deputy First Minister’s statement

Higher and Advanced Higher exams will take place from 13 May until 4 June 2021.

Further guidance will be developed, based on the advice of our scientific advisors and the Education Recovery Group, on how to deliver examinations safely in the context of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the SQA will revise the conditions for exam invigilation.  

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