FEW relish an exam, and only the foolish maintain that they are a perfect measure. Paper qualifications are not identical with ability, nor do they provide a Platonic ideal for gauging education. But, in normal times, there is always one defence of them that can be asserted. That is that they provide the closest thing possible to an equitable means of testing whether students have absorbed teaching, and how well they can demonstrate their understanding of it.

Yet Scottish pupils are in the midst of an exam season – for the assessments being undertaken are exams in all but name – without the benefit of much of the teaching that would normally precede such a measurement.

To say as much is not to criticise teachers, the majority of whom have had to work longer hours, and in more trying circumstances, than ever. Delivering online lessons alongside face-to-face teaching, as many have, requires substantial preparation and adaptation and many have risen magnificently to the challenge and deserve our gratitude and congratulations. They are also faced with the additional task of conducting much of the judgment of pupil attainment.

Last year, they were able to do so by inferring the results that their students might have produced had they had access to the full schedule of teaching. But this year, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) guidance is that no such judgments can be made, and that only documented work can be taken into consideration.

In normal conditions, that is the nature of the exam system, which may be imperfect but offers what the SQA acknowledges as its aim – “fair and credible grades”. To adopt the same approach with repeated teacher assessment – the nature of which, by necessity, varies widely across the country – is to create an exam system in all but name.

But it does so without the normal safeguards to make, as far as possible, a level basis for such assessments. The principle of teacher assessment rooted in documented evidence is unobjectionable, but in practice it has led to a faux exam schedule being adopted inconsistently across the country.

It offers none of the standardisation of conventional exams, and places an unfair burden on teachers – on the one hand, obliged to produce the supposedly Olympian, neutral results of nationwide testing without adequate tools, and on the other, prevented from exercising their judgment on the capabilities of the pupils in their care. And it imposes on students all the stresses of a normal exam season after a year in which they have been subjected to continual disruption and – through no fault of theirs, nor of their teachers – teaching almost certain to have fallen short of what they could have expected without the pandemic’s constraints.

Despite the best efforts of teachers, and without impugning those of their pupils, online teaching has been a hit-and-miss affair for many. Domestic circumstances and a digital deficit exacerbate difficulties for the most disadvantaged children – already a group for whom the attainment gap has widened in recent years – but even beyond that, distance learning imposes serious limitations.

No matter how splendidly they rose to its challenges, no teacher would maintain that it is an ideal forum for instruction, or that it allows the supervision and intervention to give each pupil his or her due. That is particularly true in technical subjects such as maths and science, or practical ones such as art or technical design. Those require continual interventions to check that those who are not naturals in the subject have grasped concepts, or rely heavily on direct physical practice or experiment.

This was always going to be a monumental challenge, and perhaps no entirely fair method was ever going to be possible. But that is, after all, the SQA’s job, and it has had a year to prepare. Senior figures in the profession believe there is still time to make adjustments to this year’s arrangements to provide more flexibility and input. We think they have a case. It would be certainly preferable to the back-tracking and confusion that was imposed on last year’s exam cohort.