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Exams 2021: Union leader’s fears of tragic consequences of exam pressure in pandemic

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association.

A teachers’ leader has warned that exam pressure during the pandemic could have tragic consequences.

Calling for cancellation of next year’s Higher and Advanced Higher exams, Seamus Searson said he feared extreme stress could tip struggling teenagers over the edge.

The general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association urged Education Secretary John Swinney to make a decision now to call off the 2021 sitting to avoid disadvantage to some youngsters.

He said: “We would urge the minister to make the decision this week rather than wait until February.”

Next year’s National 5 exams have already been cancelled and pressure is mounting for next May’s Higher and Advanced Higher to be called off too, with grades based on teacher estimates instead as they were this year.

National 5 exams cancelled to reduce the risk to Higher and Advanced Higher exams


With thousands of pupils across Scotland having lost class time to self-isolate, Mr Searson said youngsters were under greater pressure than normal and that disadvantaged pupils could bit he hardest.

He said: “If we carry on with exams the chances are the more advantaged children will do well because they are probably in the areas where people haven’t been isolating.

“Take an independent school, for example, the class sizes are far smaller and therefore the chance of transmission is reduced compared to a big secondary school in Glasgow where you are bursting at the seams.”

Using teacher assessment, he said, “youngsters will get what their teachers believe they are able to get”.

Pressure is mounting for Higher and Advanced Higher exams to be cancelled in 2021 in line with National 5s.

He said: “We need to make sure everyone has a fair chance, and at the moment we don’t think the exams are going to give people a fair chance because of Covid.

“Our worry is that divide is actually getting wider.

“The downside is you get children disillusioned, thinking ‘I’ve lost so many weeks, I can’t catch up, what’s the point?’ That is a worry.

“We don’t want any youngster to take it too much to heart and do something silly to themselves, serious. If they get stressed and depressed they could do something sad.”

Union members, he said, had already voiced worries for children who normally perform well but were not coping well with the circumstances they were in.

Teachers, he said, were also spending time focussing on exams which may not happen.

He said: “If we move to teacher assessment it means we are not preparing for exams and the youngsters will be taught probably right up to the end of May.”

The downside is you get children disillusioned, thinking ‘I’ve lost so many weeks, I can’t catch up, what’s the point?’ That is a worry.”

Seamus Searson, Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association

Mr Searson said proposals for extending the school holiday by a week, from December 18 to January 11, to act as a ‘break’ around relaxation of restrictions at Christmas would also take pressure off youngsters.

Dundee, Angus and Perth and Kinross schools are due to break off on December 23 and return on January 7, with Fife schools closing on December 22 and reopening on January 6.

Mr Searson said: “Everyone is focussed on relaxing restrictions at Christmas but we need to have measures in place before Christmas and after Christmas to ensure we don’t spread the virus any further than we need to.

“The rationale for us is if we have a decent break prior to Christmas there’s a fair chance we can contain the virus, as long as everyone is sensible.”

A survey by the National Parent Forum of Scotland found half of parents who responded wanted all exams cancelled, with three-quarters believing their child’s learning has been significantly disrupted.

Exams 2021: Parents fear children will fall short of deserved grades and half want exams cancelled

A final decision on whether the sitting will definitely go ahead is due in February but the Scottish Government said it would be taken sooner if the evidence points to it.

The Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Education Recovery group is expected to discuss the issue this week.

At her daily briefing on Monday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a decision was yet to be made on school holidays.

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