education

Scottish pupils face ‘mental health crisis’ due to lack of exam support


Scotland’s incoming education secretary is being urged to take immediate action over so-called “ghost exams” – where pupils face high-stakes testing up to three times a day with none of the usual support – as high school assessments fall into chaos for the second year running.

With a post-election reshuffle expected by the end of the week, and current incumbent John Swinney expected to be moved on after a barrage of criticism, young people have described a looming mental health crisis after National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled because Covid disruption had made it impossible to ensure consistency of learning, in particular for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds.

Although teachers were told to use their professional judgment to assess the grades their pupils should receive, Scotland’s exam board, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), has asked for evidence to support these estimates and issued question papers that must be answered “under closed-book conditions” – while insisting that these do not amount to exams.

“I know some pupils who are doing three exams in a day, or two every day of the week, and still expected to attend normal classes,” said Cameron Garrett, convener of the Scottish Youth Parliament’s education committee. “Young people are feeling really stressed and anxious as they are put through assessments that are essentially exams but without preparation or study leave.”

The chaos has been compounded after some pupils shared exam questions on TikTok, as the Times Educational Supplement revealed on Monday.

Referring to a similar crisis last year when Swinney was forced to intervene after 124,000 exams were downgraded by the SQA following teacher assessments, leading to furious protests by pupils, teachers and opposition parties, Garrett said: “People are looking at what happened last year and thinking this is going to be worse.”

Garrett called for the incoming education secretary to ensure that schools and local authorities were providing adequate mental health support to pupils, and called on the SQA to put an appeals system in place that takes exceptional circumstances into account, as well as a no-detriment policy, so that there is no risk of being downgraded.

Teaching unions have reported their members experiencing similar stresses as they grapple with the SQA’s seemingly contradictory instructions. Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “Every school is gathering the evidence differently, after the SQA effectively told teachers their professional judgment was not important. Teachers are in a mad rush to get this done in a few weeks [after the winter lockdown resulted in the majority of secondary pupils only returning to school after the Easter break] and trying to do their day job at the same time.”

Gina Wilson, head of strategy for the children and young people’s commissioner for Scotland, said: “Young people have had their right to education severely limited over the past two educational years and we must see swift action by the new education secretary to ensure that Scotland’s assessment process for 2021 is fair and rights-compliant.”

She echoed the call for a fair appeals process, in particular one that takes into account circumstances that may have affected young people’s ability to demonstrate their attainment. “We are talking about young people who through no fault of their own have struggled in this pandemic with their learning. Some may have experienced bereavement, ill-health, or have been excluded from a lot of their education by not having access to a device for remote learning,” she said.

The SQA said it hoped to announce details of the appeals process shortly and in its most recent statement on the row said teachers were “encouraged to make use of the considerable flexibility in how and when to carry out assessments”.



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