PRESSURE is growing to cancel next year’s Highers and Advanced Highers over concerns that pupils across Scotland are not being given an equal chance.

Parents and union leaders are calling for a decision to be made now because of the disruption some pupils are suffering through coronavirus related illness and self-isolation.

Areas of multiple deprivation where levels of the virus are high are particularly badly hit, with some pupils being sent home several times in just the first term since schools returned after the lockdown.

Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are also under fire over claims they are not providing enough support to teachers and learners trying to cope with the difficulties.

Professor Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, told the Sunday National there had been “a lack of foresight”.

“The SQA have let the Government down again and neither they nor Education Scotland have behaved well during this process,” he said.

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“The present circumstances are extremely disruptive for a number of children and also extremely worrying for teachers. I don’t think politicians are to blame here, as they are trying to do their best but I do think there has been an abdication of responsibility by the bodies that should be providing a lead to the politicians, mainly Education Scotland and the SQA.

“The SQA cancelled the course work for most of the Highers without an explanation which means there is no fall back evidence. Education Scotland should be setting out how you can support people at a distance to prepare for the exams.”

Professor Paterson believes the exams should go ahead but his view is not shared by teaching unions and an increasing number of parents.

The National Parent Forum of Scotland will this week supply the Scottish Government with the results of a survey of parents with pupils about to sit Higher and Advance Higher exams.

“It has become evident there are growing concerns regarding the delivery and the equality of our young people’s learning experiences and the differing level of access to learning due to disruption over Scotland either due to self-isolation or the isolation of their teachers,” a spokesperson said.

Education secretary John Swinney has indicated he will make a decision on whether to cancel the exams by the end of February but Mike Corbett, national executive member for the NASUWT teaching union said that was too late. He pointed out that the decision to cancel the National 5s had been taken in June but it had taken until this week for the SQA to give schools full details of the alternative assessments.

“It is unsustainable to pretend everything is fine and just have the exams,” said Corbett. “This week alone I had a full class of 30 on Monday and the next day 18 were off because of self-isolation.

“We need some sort of blended learning plan for schools that are badly hit and urgent news about what is going to happen with the exams, preferably with a decision taken to cancel and an internal assessment put in place instead.”

EIS general secretary Larry Flannigan said the case for cancelling sooner rather than later was “stronger by the day” because of the huge amount of disruption to learning currently taking place.

“If we wait until February then the prelim will be the estimate but that is taken four months before the course is supposed to be finished and that is unfair,” he said. “We can’t wait until then so we are pushing for the cancellation of the exam diet and a look at alternative assessment. It becomes more difficult the later you leave it.”

He said blended learning should be considered on a school-by-school basis and there should also be more help for pupils on the qualification pathways, particularly those in poorer areas.

Seamus Searson of the SSTA said a decision should have been made “months ago” because of the amount of time needed to prepare pupils.

He said pupils sitting exams next year were still playing catch up on lessons they missed during the lockdown when online teaching was patchy throughout Scotland with some schools and teachers managing better than others and some pupils, particularly those in areas of deprivation, lacking the technology needed for remote learning.

“We knew then that there was going to be disruption but now we have youngsters who are having to self-isolate two or three times,” he said. “How can that be fair compared with someone who is in an area where there is no isolation?”

An SQA spokesperson said: “A clear contingency plan is being developed as part of the work being undertaken by the National Qualifications Group 2021, including key checkpoints up to the February break to assess public health advice and its impact on the plans for exams.

“Since September, we have also engaged with more than 450 teaching professionals and local authority representatives to understand the challenges they are facing and to discuss contingency arrangements for session 2020-21. We have also engaged with parents, carers, and learners.”

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A spokesperson for Education Scotland said: “We have specifically refocused and remodelled our broad range of support to ensure we are providing practitioners with what they require at this time.

“We are working flexibly and collaboratively at regional and local levels to identify specific requirements and provide bespoke support. Additionally, we are working with a range of partners across local authorities and other groups, to increase the support available nationally for e-learning and provide access to a range of resources that can be used by teachers. This complements and builds on the support they have available locally. We are also providing a range of webinars, online events and professional learning opportunities for practitioners, much of which is focused on supporting them during this period.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said the position was being “monitored closely” with different views being listened to, but it was hoped the exams would proceed if possible.

“The Deputy First Minister has been clear that the latest point at which a decision will be taken is the February break – more than three months before the exams are due to begin,” he said. “He has also been clear that he will make a decision sooner if the evidence is pointing to that.”