CONCERN is growing that senior pupils will again suffer severe disruption to their education in the run-up to the exams because of the pandemic.

Some schools have already had to re-introduce some remote learning since they returned last week after the festive break, and it is feared more could follow as a result of staff shortages due to the rise in coronavirus infections.

The effects could be particularly serious for pupils in areas of deprivation, according to union leaders and educationalists.

“If teaching has to move online again, the implications for pupils are dire,” said Professor Lindsay Paterson (below), of the University of Edinburgh. “We now know from Scottish Government statistics that educational inequality widened so much during the disruption of 2020-21 that inequality rose back to where it had been five years ago.

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“Despite the best efforts of teachers, online schooling deeply harms children’s mental health and disrupts their parents’ capacity to work from home. Yet none of the Scottish Government agencies seems to have done anything to plan for a new phase of such disruption.”

He said the potential for yet another year of serious disruption of exams was even worse than it was in 2021 or 2020 because the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) had abolished almost all of the normal coursework that normally contributed to students’ grades.

“The only assessment available this year is the exams,” said Paterson. “Yet the last two years have shown that disrupting the preparation for exams has been one of the most unfair consequences of the Covid closures. With no coursework to fall back on, online schooling will have drastic consequences for students’ exam prospects.”

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General secretary of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) Larry Flannigan said there was concern the return of pupils and staff was going to create a spike of infection levels within school communities.

He said that while remote learning could be a temporary solution in some cases, longer periods of online teaching would lead to “significant disruption for a lot of pupils”.

“That could be concentrated in areas of deprivation as it has been throughout the pandemic so I think there is a lot of concern about the immediate situation and the potential long-term impact,” he said.

Although there was no immediate threat to the exam diet in the summer term, he said the wider concern was the potential for senior pupils to suffer significant disruption to their education.

“If they have not taken the full course they are going to go into an exam ill prepared,” said Flannigan. “One of the things that happened last year was that the deadline for teacher estimates was pushed back into June but the SQA can’t push back the exam schedule because they have to get them marked and get the results out, so that little bit of flexibility is not there this year.”

Flannigan said the recent loosening of restrictions had heightened staff anxiety as it appeared to have been based on “expediency rather than scientific evidence”.

“A lot of teachers feel quite vulnerable in spite of being double or triple vaccinated,” he said. “That’s not an absolute protection so people are concerned.”

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A spokesperson for the SQA said: “Our contingency arrangements for examinations in 2022 were published at the start of term in August last year. We confirmed to schools, colleges and training providers again in December that there were three scenarios, and that the country was still in the first scenario – preparing for a national examination diet with significant modifications to the 2021-2022 course assessments. The assessment modifications, which were carried over from the previous year, are in place to help learners and take account of the ongoing disruption to learning and teaching caused by the pandemic.

“As schools return, if there is significantly more disruption across the country than that experienced last year then we will take further steps to help learners by providing support for exam revision where possible. If this happens, it is important that information is provided at the right time to support revision. Providing this advice too far in advance may have the negative consequence of narrowing the teaching of courses, which would be detrimental to learners’ knowledge and understanding and to the next steps in their learning.”