Scotland's teachers and school pupils are suffering sleepless nights with stress over exams in all but name – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

It’s hard to quantify the level of harm caused to young people by the Scottish Qualification Authority results debacle of last year.

Students were handed life-qualifying grades based on a computer algorithm that baked in prejudice against schools in deprived communities.

Some pupils that had been predicted to get As and Bs were awarded Es and Fs. They were devastated and for over a week, the Scottish government stood by the botched enterprise until the Education Secretary, John Swinney, facing a no-confidence vote in the Scottish Parliament, reverted to the original teacher estimated grades.

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Few would have thought it possible to see the examination system do more damage than last year; but reports from my constituents make it clear that there is a serious risk that the arrangements planned for this year could be even more damaging, in terms of their impact on equality, fairness and mental health.

Before the Christmas lockdown, John Swinney promised that there would be no exam diet this year. He assured us the grading system this year would be constructed from continuous assessment, course work and teacher estimation.

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And yet, pupils are filing into gym halls up and down the country, and being handed question booklets by an invigilator, to then work through at separate tables over 90 minutes of strict silence. Don’t tell me these aren’t exams.

I understand that one pupil in Shetland has 40 assessments in eight weeks – an average of one a day. Another parent described this as “the worst outcome that could ever possibly have happened”. Teachers and pupils are exhausted.

Teachers are being paid less than the minimum wage for the extra hours they are having to work, reports Alex Cole-Hamilton (Picture: Cate Gillon)

I’m told many are unable to sleep because of stress, and that anxiety is on the increase. Put simply, the alternative arrangements imposed by the SQA for this year’s exams are clearly and indisputably causing harm to young people and their teachers.

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To claim, as the First Minister has done, that the SQA’s demand for evidence-based grading is the same as teacher judgement shows a misunderstanding of the Scottish government’s own policies on the ground, and the turmoil pupils, teachers and parents are in.

Teachers are being paid less than minimum wage for the additional time that’s being asked of them because the extra payment made available to them is so small.

They are expected to produce the exams, create the marking schemes and then mark them. They are being instructed to assure quality, and translate those marks into grades, like an exam board would traditionally do. It is unclear why the SQA has removed themselves from so many of their normal responsibilities.

These reports bring a troubling sense of déjà vu with them. Last year, all warnings were ignored by both John Swinney and the SQA until the damage had been done. I worry the same has happened again.

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There are no minutes from meetings held between the government and the SQA about this, so we will never know the reasoning and thinking behind this policy.

The new Parliament should force reform of the busted SQA. Decision makers need to be upfront and accountable. Staff need support. But most urgently pupils need help to get through this period and reassurance that they will be awarded grades that they truly deserve.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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