JOHN Swinney is being urged to make an urgent statement to parliament after reports school exams may be axed back for a second year because of coronavirus.

The Sunday Times reported the Scottish Government is considering dropping National 5 exams altogether and introducing a “scaled-back” version of Highers in 2021.

The Scottish Government did not deny the claims.

It follows the fiasco over this year’s exam results, in which 125,000 teacher-estimated grades were lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

After initially defending the outcome, Mr Swinney was forced into a U-turn by a parent backlash, despite the use of teacher estimates leading to double-digit grade inflation.

An independent report on the SQA farce is due for completion by the end of the month, and Mr Swinney is due to update Holyrood by the parliamentary recess in mid-October.

However there are now calls for him to appear before MSPs this Tuesday, and the Scottish Tories have tabled an education debate for Wednesday to quiz him on his plans.

The Sunday Times quoted an insider saying: “Cancelling next year’s National 5s, many of which are continually assessed, would be a least-worst option.

“However retaining Higher exams, albeit on a shorter school year with fewer areas of some subjects being covered, would be a better outcome for teachers and pupils under the circumstances.”

Another source told the Herald that Mr Swinney was considering the measures, and was already in discussions with the SQA and council education directors about “options”.

The source said Mr Swinney was not expected to make a decision until seeing the report on the SQA mess being written by Stirling University education professor Mark Priestley.

Tory MSP Jamie Greens said the Government’s ‘Plan A’ should be going ahead with the exams and exhausting all alternatives before any talk of abandoning them.  

He said: “The SNP should make every effort to save National 5 and Higher exams.  

“All other options should be exhausted before exams are scrapped. 

“Nobody is pretending it will be easy, but it must be our central goal to give pupils a return to as much normality as possible.  

“And if the virus does impact plan A, we also need credible contingency plans, which we didn’t have this year.  

“We will be demanding John Swinney sets out his plans in parliament on Tuesday. 

“Pupils and parents shouldn’t be left in the dark guessing what may happen any longer. 

"We cannot afford to fall into another mess like last year.” 

However Green education spokesperson Ross Greer MSP urged Mr Swinney to cancel the entire 2021 exam diet instead given the continued disruption from Covid.

He said: “Highers are a critical qualification for tens of thousands of young people, so leaving even part of those grades up to exams which the Education Secretary cannot guarantee will go ahead is a huge risk.

“John Swinney himself has already acknowledged the huge logistical challenge presented by attempting to run exams, given all pupils must sit the exam at the same time but a maximum of only 50 pupils can be in any exam hall. 

“This doesn’t even take into account the impact of any future local or national lockdowns, the huge workload that preparing for both exams and an alternative contingency would place on teachers, or that a month's learning and teaching time in June has already been lost.

"The only reliable solution is to cancel the 2021 exams now and grade pupils based on their work throughout the year, avoiding both the risk of exams taking place during a pandemic and the chaos of last month’s grading scandal. 

“The Scottish Greens worked hard to secure a fix this year which saw 75,000 pupils’ grades restored, we’d prefer to avoid the need to do so again next August."

Last week, Mr Swinney told Holyrood’s education committee that the Government’s “ambition” was to hold exams next spring, but officials were working on contingency plans to cover the “very real risk” of further disruption.

He told MSPs: "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.

"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.”

The parent campaign group UsForThem said Mr Swinney should make an “unequivocal statement” that exams would go ahead as normal in 2021.

Scotland organiser Jo Bisset said: “We cannot afford for children to have their exams disrupted again, and parents want certainty on this matter now. It is completely unfair to leave children, who’ve already endured so much, hanging in this way.

“UsForThem Scotland would like to see an unequivocal statement from the Scottish Government that the 2021 exams will go ahead as normal, so that pupils can start preparing now for such a crucial juncture in their life. Anything less than that will risk causing even more damage to the future of a generation of pupils.”

Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our ambition is to run a 2021 examination diet, however there remains a risk of further disruption for learners and schools, or more widely across the country.

"Any changes to course assessment need to be considered alongside the findings of Professor Priestley’s review of the 2020 exams, which will report at the end of the month.

"In addition, the SQA and the Education Recovery Group are looking at appropriate contingencies. Deputy First Minister John Swinney will provide clarity on next steps before the October break.”