Trust between Scottish pupils and the national exams body has broken down following last year's results fiasco, MSPs have been warned.

They were told young people continue to live with "chronic lack of certainty" over how grades will be determined under the 2021 alternative assessment model.

And there are fears the process will not guarantee fairness due to variation in approach between schools.    

It comes as the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) prepares to carry out a public consultation on the possibility of allowing direct appeals from young people.

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The move follows concern that last year's service caused many to suffer disadvantage and human rights breaches, particularly those with learning disabilities, young carers and care-experienced individuals.

Ministers had already faced outcry over the summer when thousands saw their teacher-estimated marks downgraded through the SQA’s moderation process.

Its system was designed to take into account the past performance of schools and resulted in students from less affluent backgrounds being hardest hit. A change of heart led to the reinstatement of original grades.

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With this year's National, Higher and Advanced Higher exams all cancelled due to Covid-19, observers and critics say pupils must be at the heart of the alternative assessment process.

HeraldScotland: SQA Chief Executive Fiona Robertson.SQA Chief Executive Fiona Robertson.

But Abigail McGill, who advises Children and Young People's Commissioner Bruce Adamson, told MSPs: "There has been a chronic lack of certainty for young people over how they're going to be assessed.

"It seems to differ across every school which is inevitably going to lead to unfair attainment when it comes to results in August.

"The office is very concerned that there are still students from last year awaiting an appeal or have been disadvantaged by the appeals process from last year.

"We're just as concerned that the appeals process this year will not be fair either because everything's just really been up in the air and nothing has come back down."

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Speaking on Wednesday during a meeting of Holyrood's Education and Skills (E&S) Committee, she added: "Our future seems to be very much out of our hands at the minute.

"I think...we've been treated as the villains with the pandemic... [That] it's basically our fault and I think, because of that, there's been a lack of sympathy and a lack of understanding for just how much this has affected our education - because we've been brought up to realise that exams are everything.

"So for young people right now, this is their world and we've got no say in what's happening with it. They're not really being told what's going on.

"There's still people who don't know what's going on - and that's just very unfair. It's not particularly rights-compliant either.

"It's been very distressing and disheartening for young people. I think a lot of people have lost a lot of motivation this year, and their studies have been affected by it."

MSPs were also told of the need for better communication.

HeraldScotland: Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens.Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens.

Ms McGill said: "I think email and social media directly from the SQA can really go a long way here because the amount of times I had an Instagram advert from the SQA saying, 'taking a survey on our new website, evaluate the new website, learners this is for you'... you see it a lot.

"For me and my peers I'm sure social media is probably the best way to go... because you just have to make sure you know it's from a reliable source."

She continued: "The SQA is so untrusted at this point that this is a huge step that they would need to take in order for young people to start being more involved and building that trust again."

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Ross Greer, education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said rebuilding trust would be "critical" for the organisation.   

Responding to Scottish Labour's Iain Gray during a previous E&S meeting, Fiona Robertson, SQA Chief Executive, said: "We intend to issue a public consultation in relation to our appeals service and we will be pursuing many of the issues that you've highlighted in your question... including young people being able to appeal directly and the grounds for any appeal which may apply."

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary John Swinney.Education Secretary John Swinney.

An SQA spokesman said: “Young people should talk to their school or college first if they have any questions about this year’s assessments.

“We have published detailed assessment guidance for every subject at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, which have been communicated to schools and colleges. This guidance highlights the flexible approaches in which assessment can be carried out. To maximise learning and teaching time, we have extended the deadlines for submitting evidence and also advised that assessment should take place later in the academic year.

“Throughout the creation of this year’s model, and about how a new appeals process might operate in 2021, the views and impact on young people have been at the heart of our decision making. To allow more views to be heard and considered, we will issue a public consultation on 2021 appeals this week.

“We also established a learner panel to hear directly from young people and, in response to that feedback, will soon be providing every learner with a booklet detailing this year’s model. Our website has information specifically created for learners.”

He added: “The alternative certification model has been developed by the National Qualifications Group, which includes wide representation from the education system, including the Scottish Youth Parliament.”