The leader of the largest teaching union in Scotland has warned that the government’s latest secondary school assessment guidance could create a “workload burden” for teachers and pupils.

While providing evidence in Parliament yesterday, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS), raised concerns that the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) new contingency plans for the exam diet in 2022 could “drain energy from teaching and learning” by creating a “dual assessment approach”.

The Scottish Government has announced that national exams will run next year if safe to do so. However, in the event of further disruption to education, the SQA has put two further possible scenarios in place.

One is that, if education suffers disruption due to the pandemic, there could be more modifications to course content and assessment – meaning pupils will be told which topics are likely to appear on the exam paper and may be able to take “additional support measures” such as formula sheets into exams.

And in the worst case scenario, if exams are cancelled in light of a fresh wave of Covid-19, grades will be once again be based on teachers’ “professional judgement of evidence”.

Speaking to the Education and Young People committee, Flanagan said that in preparing for next year, “what we absolutely cannot have… is a dual assessment approach, whereby schools start banking materials just in case [exams are cancelled], but at the same time prepare for prelims and an exam diet.

“This creates a workload burden for staff and it creates an assessment burden for students and all of that combines to detract from teaching and learning”.

The SQA has emphasised that under this approach there would be “no requirement” for schools to run additional assessments, as doing so would place “excess workload” on teachers and learners.

But Flanagan is not convinced it will be so simple.

He said: “What the SQA have finally put out, after some discussion, is that the contingency will be based upon naturally produced evidence. We are content with that general phraseology, but it comes back to the point around – well what is valid evidence?

“Because in our view, naturally produced evidence at this stage in the year is not going to be particularly useful because students have only started the learning process.”

The SQA has also revealed that if exams are cancelled again in 2022, students are likely to retain the direct right to appeal their grades. This measure was brought in for the first time last year, with appeals in previous years having to be raised by schools.

‘Early decision-making is critical’

Larry Flanagan gives evidence to the Committee for Education, Young People and Children. Supplied/Scottish Parliament

The former teacher also expressed frustration at the Scottish Government’s track record of late decision-making on assessment.

The 2021 exam diet was cancelled at “the final moment” by former education secretary John Swinney in December 2020, whilst the decision for exams to go ahead next year only came in August.

Flanagan said: “We could have had decisions around the ACM [Alternative Certificate Model] much earlier, so we don’t end up with a last minute decision. I don’t know why we had to wait until August to decide whether there was an [exam] diet this year or not, because it was that was what the thinking was mid-summer, and schools could have come back to a clear decision around that. So early decision-making is critical.”

The Scottish Government is to scrap the SQA and reform Education Scotland following a report into Scotland’s education system by the OECD earlier this year.

Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer said: “SQA remains committed to delivering for Scotland’s learners and supporting their teachers and lecturers. These measures, developed in consultation with the Scottish education system, will ensure the safe delivery of national courses this year.”