Education Secretary John Swinney has warned there is a “very real risk” that plans to hold exams could be disrupted again next year.
The Deputy First Minister told Holyrood’s Education Committee he wants exams to go ahead in the spring but the Scottish Government faces a “dilemma” because of the risk of further coronavirus disruption for schools.
An announcement will be made before the half-term break for many Scottish schools on Friday October 2 setting out the plan for exams.
Mr Swinney said the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) is already working on contingency plans if exams are cancelled once again due to coronavirus.
Giving evidence to the committee, Mr Swinney said: “The very real risk remains that there may be further disruptions for individual learners, individual schools and colleges, or more widely across the country during the course of the year.
“And there’s no way of knowing what circumstances we will face in the spring of next year when, in normal circumstances, the exam day would take place.
“That uncertainty and risk of full disruption makes identifying a fair and robust approach an incredibly difficult decision and there are a wide range of views on the best approach to take.”
He added: “Our ambition remains to run a 2021 examination diet.
“However, in these exceptional times, the SQA … are looking at contingencies which will be appropriate to the circumstances.
“This is especially relevant as we are currently seeing a disturbing increase in the number of cases of coronavirus, which has the potential to cause further disruption.”
Mr Swinney also told MSPs there are “very striking and significant differences” between the cancellation of the 2020 exams and preparation for next year’s exams.
When schools were closed towards the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government asked the SQA to develop a replacement grading system in the absence of exams.
The outcome sparked widespread backlash because the SQA’s moderation process disproportionately downgraded teachers’ evidence-based estimates for pupils from poorer backgrounds and relied on an algorithm based on schools’ historic performances.
Mr Swinney eventually rowed back and announced grades would revert to teacher predictions.
He said it is “imperative” the Scottish Government learns lessons from the cancellations this year and it will consider a report into the problems that is due by the end of September.
The Education Secretary said “extensive feedback” will be gathered by the SQA before making a decision about next year’s exams.
Asked by Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer about teachers being concerned their workload could “spiral out of control” if they have to prepare pupils for exams, as well as any contingency plan if they are cancelled, Mr Swinney said he wants to avoid this “at all possible cost”.
He acknowledged teachers are “under significant pressure” and pledged any “solutions” to the exam situation will not add to their workload.
After the committee meeting, Mr Greer said exams going ahead next year is a “huge risk, given the potential of local or national lockdowns”.
He added: “The only reliable solution is to cancel the exams now and grade pupils based on their work throughout the year, avoiding both the risk of exams and the chaos of last month’s grading scandal.”
An SQA spokesman said: “As requested by the Deputy First Minister, SQA will now publish the outcomes of its technical consultation on modifications to National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses for the 2020-21 session and the 2021 exam timetable, following the publication of the Priestley Review.
“We recognise that teachers and lecturers are seeking clarity but it is also beneficial that the system receives as much clarity and certainty as possible at the one time, when all the related information is available so an informed decision about next steps can be made.”