SCOTTISH school exams have been cancelled for the first time in their history - as all schools will close to pupils tomorrow amid the coroavirus pandemic.

Education Secretary John Swinney told MSPs that pupils "deserve to have their achievements recognised" and will still obtain qualifications this year.

After discussions with the chief examiner, Mr Swinney said prior attainment, coursework and teacher estimates will be used to determine pupils' grades after taking the "unprecedented" step to cancel the exam diet.

The Scottish exams diet has not been interrupted since it began in 1888 - and withstood both world wars.

Mr Swinney said: "In all of our history, Scotland has never cancelled the exams. Since 1888, they have been held every May or June without fail.

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"In the midst of two world wars, the exams went ahead.

"It is a measure of the gravity of the challenge we now face, that I must today announce the exams will not go ahead this year."

He added: "I am aware of how significant a step this is. Indeed, it is an unprecedented one in unprecedented times. Scotland’s exam diet has never been cancelled before.  

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"Whilst the protection of life is our overriding priority here, we must do our upmost to ensure that the interests and life chances of our young people, due to sit exams from the end of April, are protected. 

"Their achievements must be rightly and fairly recognised. I want the 2020 cohort to hold their heads high and gain the qualifications and awards that they deserve, after many years of hard work. 

"I know they will be very worried by the situation they face and I want them to be assured we are doing all that we can to deliver the best outcome for them."he added that "coursework, along with assessments from teachers of the expected performance of young people, combined with prior attainment will be used as part of that assessment."

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The Scottish Government expects all schools and nurseries to close to pupils from Friday in a bid to try and supress the spread of coronavirus.

But Mr Sweeney said some schools could provide a "skeleton staff" which could offer support and care for vulnerable pupils and those whose parents are classes as key workers.

He added: "Teaching, learning and support will continue – albeit in different ways for different groups of children.

"For the majority, this will be through distance learning and online learning, with different forms of on-going contact with teachers rather than in-school, face-to-face." 

Mr Swinney said the Scottish Government will "continue the provision of free school meals" but there are "multiple options" as to how local authorities could provide them.

Despite schools closing on Friday, Mr Swinney said he "expects to work on further details into next week" with local councils.

Mr Swinney said childcare provision will still be maintained for parents who are key workers.

He said: "We must support local authorities to put in place arrangements that ensure the children of key workers, who do not have another parent or carer at home who can look after them during the day,  have continuing access to all-age learning and childcare that allows their parents or carers to participate in the national response to Covid-19.

"For example, our doctors and nurses must continue to be available to support the fight against this virus."

Fiona Robertson, Scotland's chief examining officer and chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), said teachers will give estimated grades to pupils, based on "the available evidence gathered throughout the year" and previous scores.

Pupils are still expected to receive their results no later than August 4.

Announcing a free post-results service to review grades, Ms Robertson added: "I fully appreciate that this will be an uncertain time for learners who have worked hard throughout the year and will now, with their families, be worried about what this means for them.

"Everyone here at SQA will do their utmost, with the support of the education system, to ensure that their hard work is rightly and fairly recognised, and allows them to proceed to further learning or work."

Scottish Conservative education spokesperson, Jamie Greene sid that his party gives its "full support to the government on this issues" and will do so "every day in this unprecedented crisis".

He said: "This is clearly a deeply worrying time for pupils, parents and those in the childcare and teaching industries, but the Scottish Government has our full support on this.

“The decision to close schools and nurseries is one of the most difficult any government can take and, while understandable and inevitable, it will have a lasting impact on the future lives of many young people."

He added: "There do remain unanswered questions about how and which key workers will be provided schooling and childcare, the role of the private nursery sector in all of this, and how pupils will be effectively graded in the absence of exams.

"These questions are not insurmountable, but will require government to react quickly to allay fears, concerns and inform people quickly and accurately.

“There is much goodwill and creativity in the teaching profession, and that flexible approach is now required of all of us in these tumultuous times.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: "We support the decision to close most schools and nurseries as it is based on scientific advice on how best to keep people safe.

"The government’s plans look to ensure pupils receive qualifications they have been working for and to ensure that pupils and young people are benefiting from the continuity of their education.

"This will be an anxious time for young people but I want them to know that this decision is in their best interests."