EDUCATION officials are drawing up contingency plans in case exams are cancelled for a second time next year, amid a "disturbing" rise in coronavirus cases.

John Swinney, Scotland's Education Secretary, said there remains a "very real risk" of further disruption to pupils and schools.

He said he wanted to be in a position to provide clarity before the October break, but the "ambition" remains to hold exams in spring.

Exams were cancelled for the first time this year in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, with the awarding of results later sparking huge controversy.

Mr Swinney said: "I'm acutely aware that the sector wants clarity with regards to how national qualifications in 2021 will be assessed.

"The very real risk remains that there may be further disruptions for individual learners, individual schools and colleges or more widely across the country during the course of the year, and there is no way of knowing what circumstances we will face in the spring of next year when in normal circumstances the exam diet would take place.

"That uncertainty and risk of further disruption makes identifying a fair and robust approach an incredibly difficult decision, and there are a wide range of views on the best approach to take.

"Our ambition remains to run a 2021 examination diet, however in these exceptional times the SQA and the education recovery [group] are looking at contingencies which will be appropriate to the circumstances.

"This is especially relevant as we are currently seeing a disturbing increase in the number of cases of coronavirus which has the potential to cause further disruption.

"It is also imperative that we consider fully the lessons of the 2020 national qualifications."

Mr Swinney, who is also Deputy First Minister, made the comments while giving evidence to Holyrood's Education and Skills Committee.

He said there are practical and logistical challenges to holding exams next year.

He said: "As a practical example, there will be some schools in the country [where] for certain subjects and qualifications, over 200 young people will need to be accommodated in an exam setting to be able to undertake that exam.

"The largest number of individuals that we can have in a school hall environment, physically distanced, is probably about 50.

"So there are some practical and logistical issues that have to be wrestled with to enable the safe, fair delivery of the exam diet to individual young people."

Around 2 per cent of school staff are currently absent due to issues related to Covid-19.

Mr Swinney said an additional 1,118 teachers have been recruited by local authorities, with "ongoing discussions" between councils and candidates in another 250 cases.

In addition to this, around 2,500 qualified individuals who are not currently teaching have been identified as available to return if there are challenges ahead.

Mr Swinney told MSPs there are "very striking and significant differences" between the cancellation of the 2020 exams and preparation for next year's exams.

When schools were closed towards the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to develop a replacement grading system in the absence of exams.

The outcome sparked widespread criticism after it emerged the SQA's moderation process disproportionately downgraded teachers' evidence-based estimates for pupils from poorer backgrounds and relied on an algorithm based on schools' historic performances.

Following pressure, Mr Swinney eventually rowed back and announced grades would revert to teacher predictions.

Mr Swinney said the findings of an independent review into this year's results process will be published soon, including recommendations for future assessment.

The SQA has also consulted on measures to modify course assessments and the timetabling of exams.

Mr Swinney said he wanted to provide as much certainty as possible, and so has asked the SQA to "pause" publication of this report until the outcome of the independent review.

Asked by Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer about teachers being concerned their workload could "spiral out of control" if they have to prepare pupils for exams, as well as any contingency plan if they are cancelled, Mr Swinney said he wants to avoid this "at all possible cost".

After the committee meeting, Mr Greer said exams going ahead is a "huge risk, given the potential of local or national lockdowns".