THE last 18 months have been weird and stressful for all of us. For young people in particular, though, trying to figure out what was coming next must have felt like being cast into the unknown over and over again.

It’s easy to forget that when you are nearing the end of your time at school the notion of what happens next is everything, and your future seems to hinge on whether or not you get the job or college or university place you’ve been aiming for.

The uncertainty this year’s school leavers face hasn’t been helped by Scotland’s exams body, the SQA, which appears to have spent more time covering its own back than delivering a robust qualifications system which treats pupils and teachers fairly. It’s incredible to think, after the debacle of last year’s botched attempt to turn the work of pupils and teachers into a statistical average, that the SQA have made such a mess again.

READ MORE: Scottish exams body to be reformed amid grades row

We have young people sitting exams that are not called exams but are in every sense the same thing. The workload of delivering this has been passed on to already chronically overworked teachers who are being set to take the blame for any unhappiness by the false claims that grades will be based on their professional judgment.

This system simply repeats last year’s disastrous flaws by stealth. Teachers’ professional judgment certainly isn’t being respected when they are being pressured to lower individual pupils’ grades based on historic school-level results.

Teachers have been consistently let down throughout this pandemic and sadly this system is just the latest example of that.

It’s doubly absurd for government ministers to insist that teacher judgment is key when the one year in which where pupil grades were genuinely based on that professional judgement, 2020, is being excluded from the data used to “moderate” this year’s grades. This will actively count against working-class young people in particular, given they benefited the most from last year’s inequalities eventually being fixed.

So, yet again, the SQA has designed a system more interested in protecting the status quo than supporting young people and their teachers.

Is the status quo worth protecting? I’d argue not. It reduces the attainment of pupils too often to the results of a high-stakes exam and preserves rather than eliminates the huge attainment gap between pupils from the richest and most deprived backgrounds.

This week the Scottish Government published its stats on “positive destinations”, which showed 93% of school leavers meeting the criteria.

It sounds impressive, but beneath the headline is different story. For example, it shows the lowest number of Scottish school leavers finding work for a decade.

I really don’t like the term “positive destination” because it implies that what you do immediately after school is your “destination”, rather than just another step on life’s journey. As Joe Strummer said, the future is unwritten, and there’s nothing to be gained from describing whatever this next step is as an endpoint.

It’s also ridiculous to describe a poverty-waged job or insecure zero-hours contract as “positive”, which is what these figures do.

So, while we look at how to improve the mess of the Scottish exams system, we need to remember this should be about equipping young people with the skills and opportunities they need to get off to a good start in whatever they do next.

READ MORE: Any Education Scotland and SQA review must be ‘thoroughly independent’ to be effective, expert says

One in 10 school leavers in the poorest parts of Scotland is jobless. That should be ringing alarm bells for government. And that’s before recognising that many of those counted as having reached a “positive destination” are in fact being paid poverty wages in insecure work.

To be clear, the pandemic is the primary cause of this spike in youth unemployment. That does not absolve government of the responsibility for addressing the problem as quickly as possible, using all of the tools at their disposal. Even short of independence, there is much in the Scottish Government’s current arsenal which is going unused.

The Greens and trade unions have long called for the definition of a positive destination to be changed, so we can better tell whether or not young people are in the kind of quality employment they deserve.

Of course, if we’re really going to close the persistent gap between the most and least privileged children, we won’t do it through education alone. We need to eradicate child poverty through better paying jobs, warmer and more affordable homes and strong public services.

But at the same time, we need a qualifications system that doesn’t create further obstacles. Thanks to pressure from the Greens, Scotland’s entire exam system is part of the long-awaited OECD report into Scotland’s education system, which is now due to be published next week. It is my hope that the findings will be form a basis for a new fairer system of assessments that leaves no-one behind. That’s a destination I can get behind.