SQA exams: why National 5 exams in Scotland have been cancelled for 2021 - and how pupils will be graded

The timeline of Higher and Advanced Higher exams has also been changed according to the announcement by the Education Secretary

It has been revealed that National 5 exams in Scotland have been cancelled for 2021 (Photo: Shutterstock)
It has been revealed that National 5 exams in Scotland have been cancelled for 2021 (Photo: Shutterstock)

It has been announced that Scottish National 5 exams scheduled for 2021 will not go ahead.

Education Secretary, John Swinney, confirmed that the government would be accepting many of the recommendations outlined by Professor Mark Preistley, who was commissioned by Swinney to carry out an independent review of the exam results scandal that occurred earlier this year.

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Why have exams been cancelled?

Speaking to the Scottish Parliament on 7 October, Swinney said, “Due to the level of disruption already caused by Covid, and due to the likely disruption faced by some or all of our pupils and students this academic year, a full exam diet is simply too big a risk to take.”

The Education Secretary explained that, this year, the government “cannot plan for business as usual.”

He said that work undertaken by pupils for exams would have normally started in May, when schools were closed due to Covid-19, and so they have already lost a significant amount of teaching time.

“Therefore, I have asked the chief examining officer to take an alternative approach to National 5 accreditation in 2021, rather than the usual exams,” Swinney said.

He announced then that the National 5 examination diet would be suspended in 2021.

How will students be graded?

The Education Secretary explained that students who would have been taking their National 5 exams in 2021 would instead be graded based on “teacher judgement.” Where possible, students will put forward “between two and four pieces of work per subject that will form the basis of arriving at a final award.”

He said that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) would work with schools and colleges throughout the year, looking at work samples and giving feedback to teachers and lecturers.

Swinney added, “I want to make it clear to the Parliament, given the controversies of the previous awards process, what will not happen.

“First and foremost, awards will not be given or taken away on the basis of a statistical model or a school’s past performance. There will be no algorithm.

“Awards will be based on the progress of our young people and their work. That work and the judgement of the teacher, supported by appropriate quality assurance to maintain standards, will be the evidence on which grades are based.”

The announcement comes after the Scottish government and the SQA were heavily criticised following the exam results scandal earlier this year.

The SQA initially graded students using an algorithm based on teacher estimates for each pupil and moderated them using results from previous years. This sparked outcry, after 125,000 student results were downgraded, with people claiming that the system was unfairly biased against pupils in schools which had historically underperformed.

The government eventually agreed to accept original teacher estimates of the grades.

Have other exams been affected?

Swinney said, “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.”

So while National 5 exams have been cancelled, the Higher and Advanced Higher exams, which are undertaken by older students, will still go ahead.

However, they will take place later than usual, starting on 13 May 2021, which is two weeks later than planned. This is to allow students more teaching time, to make up for some of the time that has been lost during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Swinney explained that results day will remain as 10 August 2021.