Examiners say they are preparing to be “generous” when grading candidates this year as part of a package of measures aimed at supporting pandemic-hit learners.

Bosses at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have also confirmed that advance notice of topics set to feature in exams will be published to aid revision ahead of the 2022 diet. For some subjects, the assistance will include further advice on content that will not be assessed, or a study guide.   

The move comes as schools battle the impact of Covid-19, with the Omicron variant continuing to cause significant rates of pupil and staff absence.

SQA leaders said it remained their “clear intention” that exams will take place between April and June. They will only be cancelled if public health restrictions prohibit physical gatherings.

The SQA stressed that, given the disruption learners have faced and taking into account different assessment arrangements, it was “prepared to be more generous in our approach to grading than in a normal year”.

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Overall outcomes in 2022 should represent an “intermediary position” between results in 2021 and those recorded before the pandemic, the authority added. This means grade boundaries - the marks needed for an A, B or C in a particular course – could be lowered. However, the SQA indicated its process would depend on candidate performance trends and whether these are sufficiently supported by previously announced measures such as course assessment changes.  

Last year’s alternative certification model led to a near-20 per cent rise in the proportion of A passes at Higher and Advanced Higher level. The jump sparked claims of "massive" grade inflation.

Both the exceptional circumstances and appeals services – which, respectively, operate when candidates are unable to attend a particular exam or want to challenge a result - will see SQA-appointed teachers and lecturers review assessment evidence gathered throughout the year.

In the case of appeals, the SQA will also conduct a clerical check on exam scripts. Final awards will be based on the higher grade generated by the two types of evidence. The appeals service will remain free and direct.

Advance information on examined topics will be published in the week beginning March 7. This is to prevent a narrowing of teaching or learning that might affect a candidate's readiness for the next stage in their education.   

Revision support will be available for all courses that have an exam. SQA bosses said the assistance would be tailored to reflect the content and style of questions in each paper, as well as any modifications that are already in place.

SQA bosses said it was their SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said the pandemic was continuing to cause significant disruption to education.

Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive and Scotland’s chief examiner, said: “I fully understand that there remains significant disruption to learning and teaching caused by the pandemic.

“Teachers and lecturers across the country are working exceptionally hard to ensure learners receive all the support they need. I am also aware that learners may be feeling apprehensive or anxious about sitting formal exams for the first time this year.

“The substantial package of additional support SQA is announcing today is the fairest and best way we can help support all learners to demonstrate their level of knowledge, understanding and skills for each course, while also maintaining the integrity, credibility and standard of the qualifications.

“With the support of the education system, we will continue to do all we can to deliver for Scotland’s learners this year.”

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Jim Thewliss, general secretary at School Leaders Scotland, has broadly welcomed the new measures.

“Given the significant disruption to learning and teaching as a consequence of staff and pupil absence, and the resultant level of anxiety which young people are experiencing in the lead up to National examinations, it is important that as comprehensive support as is possible to provide is made available to them,” he said.

“This wide-ranging support package will go a long way to enabling exam candidates to better demonstrate the true level of their knowledge and skills.”

Stewart Nicolson, from the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: “Given the level of disruption, it’s important that additional support has been identified for learners taking National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams this year.”

Leaders at the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, were also supportive. General secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The provision by the SQA of some revision support for courses which have an exam is helpful for students, though it will be important that schools and local authorities are supported to enable additional relevant study support for young people who would not otherwise have access to private tutors, in order that students might benefit from the SQA revisions aids on a more equitable basis.”

He added: “The inclusion this year of an appeals service that can be accessed by students who perform less well in the final exams than their evidence-based estimates suggest, and of arrangements for exceptional circumstances in the event that students are unable to sit the final exam, also provide some mitigation of the impacts of Covid disruption on learner outcomes.”

SQA bosses said it was their Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has announced additional money to support pupil revision sessions over the Easter break.

However, Scottish Conservative Shadow Minister for Children and Young People, Meghan Gallacher, said: “This revision support is too little, too late. The Education Secretary has not taken the concerns of pupils and teachers seriously enough. After two years of mass disruption to their education, our schoolkids need to go into their exams feeling prepared and delaying this support until March is not good enough.

“Also, given that revision classes and study guides are delivered online, those children who have not yet received the tablet or laptop promised to them by the SNP at last year’s election will be hugely disadvantaged. 

“The SNP Government need to provide additional support to pupils now and guarantee that exams will definitely go ahead this spring.”

In a separate development, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has confirmed £4 million will be used to help schools and colleges provide targeted exam preparation sessions for learners who need them most over the Easter break.

She said: “It remains my firm intention that exams will take place as planned - they will only be cancelled if public health advice says it isn’t safe.

“While the number of full and partial school closures has been small, it is clear that many secondary schools have experienced extreme disruption as a result of the Omicron variant - particularly in the first half of January - in relation to both student and teacher absences. 

“This package of measures is designed to ensure our learners are fully supported in their learning and preparations for the exams this year.”