Scottish pupils are facing a national qualifications "disaster" even worse than last year's exams fiasco, critics have warned.

Amid rapidly growing fears over unfairness in the alternative assessment process, teacher representatives told The Herald there could be an appeals "explosion" later this summer.

Education Secretary John Swinney is also under pressure from Labour to ensure “equity and consistency” for those who want to challenge results.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reiterated during Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing that there was “no requirement” for schools to replicate a "full formal exam or prelim diet" and said “great care” would be taken to assist young people.

READ MORE: Pupils warned against sharing assessments on social media

The latest worries come after National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were axed. 

Grades will instead be based on teacher judgement supported by evidence of pupil attainment, with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) providing question papers that schools can use for this purpose.

The decision to cancel exams was made amid concern some youngsters, particularly those in poorer areas, had been hit harder as a result of pandemic-related disruption to learning. 

But there is increasing anger that the replacement system also appears to be creating inequality due to variation between schools, with some campuses hosting exam-style diets while others schedule assessments during class time. 

Union leaders have warned pupils will be penalised by an emphasis on high-pressure evidence gathering over a more holistic, teacher-centred consideration of ability that includes factors such as recent self-isolation. 

They also said setting aside different days for cross-marking, verification and moderation would effectively mean young people in certain areas having longer to prepare for assessments.

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

Meanwhile, concerns over weaknesses in the process have been fuelled by reports that students are using social media to share details of test questions.

On Monday, Dr Gill Stewart, SQA Director of Qualifications Development, wrote to schools to say "appropriate penalties" should be applied to those who break the rules.

There is already acute worry over the fact some youngsters are being put through exam-style “diets” following the temporary closure of classrooms in response to Covid-19. Many fear this will add to inequalities created by the pandemic.

Seamus Searson, SSTA General Secretary, said it was right that schools had been given flexibility to determine their approach. 

But he stressed he was very concerned about alternative certification and warned it had sparked deep anger among parents.    

“I’m predicting there will be a mess this summer and the teachers will be blamed,” he told The Herald.

READ MORE: Schools to have blended learning 'after lockdown', says Glasgow education boss

“We were promised that this was going to be based on the teacher’s professional judgement but that’s been taken away by the SQA. The teachers are just administering key evidence rather than being able to use their judgement to assess performance.

“If we plough on with just using the evidence that can be provided in school in the time available, there will be a disaster - worse than [the exam results fiasco] last year.

“There will be an explosion of appeals. We risk losing a whole generation of youngsters over this – we’re setting up a system of failure.”

Mr Searson said assessment timescales varied significantly from school to school and that the implications for pupils were causing worry.

HeraldScotland: Formal exams have been cancelled due to Covid-19.Formal exams have been cancelled due to Covid-19.

“Schools have been given two extra days for moderation, cross-marking and verification, but the question is when do you do this?” he added.

“Some of them were doing it last week on election day when the schools were closed, and evidence gathering would have taken place in advance of that. At other schools, it’s happening in June, meaning there’s more time for evidence-gathering.

“The promise that teacher judgement was going to be a major element in this has just not materialised at all. I can see a lot of youngsters not getting the grades they should.

“In a good number of cases the evidence gathered in school will support the teacher’s professional judgement but there will be a number of cases where that doesn’t happen for all sorts of reasons – maybe a pupil had problems engaging with the system months ago or they’ve recently had to isolate.

“Parents have been complaining that their children are not being fairly treated compared with children in other schools – that what’s happening at their school is not the same as what’s happening at another school.

“There might be good reasons for the difference but parents are already preparing arguments for the summer appeals process. They’re seeing injustice and want to do the best for their youngsters.”

READ MORE: EIS calls for 'equitable' school exams system

Commenting on the SQA's warning to schools over question paper security, he added: “Threatening pupils or schools... is a nonsense.

"You are never going to be able to guarantee security when the papers are not being done by everybody at the same time.

"And, in this day and age, the pupils are going to get sight of those papers, take pictures of them and so on, which is what has been happening."

Mr Searson stressed there was still time to improve the process.

“We need to stand back now,” he said. “We need the Education Secretary to say, 'stop what you’re doing and come up with something more manageable - something based more on the teacher’s judgement'. It’s not too late to change.”

His concerns were echoed by Eileen Prior, Executive Director of parents' organisation Connect. 

READ MORE: John Swinney 'sympathetic' to more ongoing assessment

“Parents and young people are clearly getting more and more distressed about the so-called alternative assessment model,” she said.

“There is great concern about fairness, consistency from school to school, young people's mental health and the expectation that most of us had that course work would lead a similar 'teacher judgement' process, with moderation, as last year.

“Now we are all hearing about examples of test papers, produced by the SQA, supposedly as part of a range of assessment options for schools to choose from, being used as the main way of assessing in many schools.

“Young people are between a rock and a hard place here: exams that are not really exams being sat at different times from school to school, and sometimes more than once, and also being circulated on social media; more time spent in exam conditions than they would have done normally and without study leave; course work that was expected to count as evidence which is not being used as evidence. This is on top of all the disruption they have experienced this year.

“The SQA, Scottish Government and local authorities have some big questions to answer. How will young people's individual circumstances be factored in? Will schools take extenuating circumstances into account, or will the SQA? What will appeals look like? And how are young people's rights being respected in all of this?”

HeraldScotland: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure pupils and parents during Tuesday's Covid briefing.First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure pupils and parents during Tuesday's Covid briefing.

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s new education spokesman, has written to John Swinney to demand "clarity and equity" in this year's appeals process.

"​It's all too clear that once more John Swinney and the SQA are sleepwalking into a crisis,” he said.

"Young people in Scotland are right now sitting exams in all but name, they deserve clarity and certainty about the process they are undertaking.

"Following last year's exams shambles we also need to ensure there is equity and consistency in the appeals process. 

"John Swinney needs to accept the mistakes he has made this year and ensure fairness in the process to come as a matter of urgency."

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An SQA spokesman said: “The outcomes of the appeals consultation are currently being considered. We hope to announce details of the appeals process shortly.

“We fully appreciate that this is a challenging time for learners across Scotland.  The National Qualifications 2021 Group, which includes the representation from across the education system, co-created this year’s alternative certification model. 

“The Group has been clear that there is no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet this year and that results need to be based on demonstrated attainment by assessment in a flexible way to suit local circumstances.

“SQA has provided a flexible and consistent framework for schools and colleges this year, including detailed guidance, material and support, based on assessment standards that teachers and lecturers are familiar with.”

On the issue of social media being used to share test questions, he added: “The security and confidentiality of assessment material protects its integrity and helps ensure fairness to all learners.

“SQA has provided secure assessment materials to help teachers and lecturers gather evidence for provisional results, if they choose to use them. Teachers and lecturers have the flexibility to decide how and when to use these materials, which can be used in part or in their entirety.

“However, we are taking these incidents very seriously and are contacting schools and colleges to ensure that posts are removed as soon as possible.”

READ MORE: Schools warned as fears grow over post-Easter 'exams'

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Tuesday's Covid briefing: “We take all of this really seriously. Young people have suffered more, not just in terms of education but the impact on their lives over the past year, than possibly any other group in our society.

“The revised certification model for National 5, Higher and Advanced Highers, necessitated by the absence of exams this year, was published, I think, in February.

"The submission date for provisional grades has been extended to the 25th of June. That provides more time for the gathering of evidence of pupil attainment.

“It’s important to remember the model was developed by the National Qualifications 2021 Group, which includes teacher [and] EIS representation.

READ MORE: Teachers face rush to submit grades

"The group has been clear there’s no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet.

"The awarding of qualifications will be based on teacher judgement, not on past results, not on algorithms. And the evidence for each individual learner doesn’t have to be the same, as long as it meets the conditions of assessment relative to the course.

“So this is an anxious time for young people – I recognise that – and great care has been and will continue to be taken to make sure they are supported as fully as possible.”