JOHN SWINNEY has been told to draw up what criteria will be needed for next year’s Higher exams to go ahead.

The Education Secretary confirmed on Wednesday that the 2021 Highers and Advanced Highers will take place, although contingency plans will be established in case the ambition is not possible.

The National 5 exams, due to take place in 2021 have been scrapped after Mr Swinney followed recommendations by Professor Mark Preistly, who carried out an independent review of this year’s exams fiasco.

All of this year’s exams were cancelled due to the pandemic but the Scottish Government was forced into a u-turn over the method used to determine grades based on teacher estimates. But after moderation by the SQA, partly based on a school’s past performance, thousands of pupils had their marks downgraded from initial teacher estimates – with those from less affluent backgrounds hit hardest.

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Scottish Labour has demanded action in order to avoid a repeat of this year’s “litany of failures”.

The party’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray, has written to Mr Swinney, calling for urgent clarity on the National 5 assessments that will be used to determine grades.

Mr Swinney has also be asked to set out when and on what basis the 2021 Highers exams will be allowed to take place, guarantee pupils that their course work will be prioritised in determining grades and ensure a review into the appeals process will take place with the input of the Children’s Commissioner.

In his report, Professor Priestly pointed to emails between the Scottish Government and the SQA which “suggests that this issue and its explosive implications for public opinion appear to have not been fully grasped by the SQA”, other than pointing to the appeals process.

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He added: “Even at this late stage, the focus seemed to rest on presenting a positive picture (the attainment gap had closed in general terms) rather than seeking a fuller understanding of the nuances in the data.”

SQA chief executive, Fiona Robertson, said the organisation “is committed to listening and being responsive to the needs of schools, colleges, stakeholders, learners and parents/carers and will play its full part in delivering the measures outlined”, by Mr Swinney.

She added: “We will duly reflect and consider the review findings and will be responding to the Scottish Government on next steps shortly.”

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Mr Gray has also called on Mr Swinney to ensure the SQA is told to overhaul its approach to transparency.

In his letter, Mr Gray said: “It is important that the Scottish Government gets this right for young people, and I therefore hope you will agree that the measures I have outlined will ensure that those who are assessed by the SQA in 2021 can have confidence that they will be treated fairly by the system.”

Professor Preistly highlighted that the SQA "has stated to us that there is no regret in respect of the moderation approach used”, despite the Scottish Government issuing an apology to the thousands of pupils impacted – prompting a change of heart from ministers over the moderation process.

Mr Gray said: “The Priestley Report unveiled a litany of failures on behalf of the Education Secretary and the SQA.

“We cannot risk a repeat of the catastrophic SQA results fiasco next year.”

He added: “The Scottish Government must provide clarity urgently over how the upcoming National 5 and Higher qualifications will be awarded, ensure that course work has primacy, involve the Childrens’ Commissioner in the process to avoid a repeat of the infringement of pupils’ rights, and overhaul the culture of intransigence in the SQA.

“We simply cannot afford to gamble with the future of our young people or allow the scandal of this summer to be repeated. It is time for John Swinney to take action over these concerns and get Scotland’s education system back on track.”

On the National 5 assessments for next year, Ms Robertson said the SQA “will work with schools and colleges through the year on the quality assurance of their learners’ work”, which will include “sampling work and feeding back to teachers and lecturers to ensure standards are maintained”.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “In an already disrupted school year, the alternative approach to certification for National 5 candidates’ year will free up teachers’ and school leaders’ capacity to provide effective support to learners and to capture their achievements.

“The Deputy First Minister set out in his statement to Parliament that the alternative approach for National 5s will be based on teacher judgment, supported by assessment resources.

“The statement also set out that the SQA will provide further guidance by subject, and will work up contingency plans for Higher and Advanced Higher exams.

“The Scottish Government has made clear in its response to the findings of the Priestley review that we are serious about learning the lessons from awarding in 2020, and will take action on the recommendations of the report with an important role for stakeholders, including the Children and Young People’s Commissioner.”