Pupils face an “assessment overload” due to contingency proposals drawn up ahead of the planned return of formal exams next year, Scotland’s largest teaching union has said.

The warning from the EIS came after Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville confirmed a conventional diet would be held in 2022 “if safe to do so”. Exams were cancelled in 2020 and this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Somerville also highlighted that the content of courses had been reduced or modified to reflect previous upheaval. For example, some topics in maths will be dropped from final exams, while English portfolios will only require one piece of writing to be completed.

Two contingency plans have also been put in place in case Covid-19 continues to create problems.

The first allows additional assessment and course changes to be made if the pandemic causes further disruption to learning but public health officials decide exams can go ahead. The second means the diet can be cancelled if advisers believe it would not be safe. Pupil grades would then be determined by teacher judgement on the basis of “normal in-year assessment”.

READ MORE: School exams to return in 2022 'if safe to do so', SNP confirms

Ms Somerville’s announcement was accompanied by a statement from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). It asks teachers to “gather examples of learners’ work and keep a record of any assessments that take place throughout the session, for example prelims, practical performances or class tests that provide an appropriate degree of challenge, integration and application of the key knowledge and skills of each National Course”.

The guidance adds: “Gathering completed assessments, as learners progress through the session, will provide a reliable collection of evidence that can be used to determine their grades if exams are cancelled at short notice.”

But EIS bosses warned such an arrangement could be hugely problematic. Larry Flanagan, General Secretary, said: “The EIS is very clear that, with regard to next year’s qualifications, the priority for schools is to focus on teaching and learning, and not to simply start gathering assessment evidence in case it is needed for ‘contingency purposes’.

HeraldScotland: EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan has concerns about the newly announced arrangements.EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan has concerns about the newly announced arrangements.

“Students cannot be assessed before learning and skills development have been enabled. The danger in the advice issued by the SQA is that is initiates a dual approach – continuous assessment as a contingency and working towards an exam diet – which will create another workload challenge for teachers and an assessment overload for students.

“The EIS supports the use of professional judgement if it is required but it should be for teachers, not the SQA, to determine the appropriate evidence base for that.”

One school leader, who asked not to be named, welcomed the fact Ms Somerville had provided an update at the start of term. But he noted that planned exam dates were similar to those in previous years and said holding the bulk of the diet in June would provide teachers and pupils with crucial additional time for learning.

He also highlighted that SQA modifications would not always be helpful to young people. “For example, removing the assignment from courses - this saves a bit of time but can often be a component of the course where candidates do well,” he told The Herald. “They lose out on this opportunity and more reliance is placed on the exam.”

READ MORE: Scotland should reform '19th century' pupil assessments

Jim Thewliss, General Secretary at School Leaders Scotland, said teachers had previously shown a strong understanding of national standards and young people’s circumstances. He also predicted they would be “more savvy” about the way in which they plan learning to gather evidence of attainment.

“At this point in time, I think that what has gone out there is the appropriate message to be passing to teachers, pupils and parents,” he added.

Fiona Robertson, SQA Chief Executive, said: “The SQA understands the need to provide teachers, lecturers, parents, carers and learners with clear and timely information regarding assessments in 2022.

"Now that the Scottish Government has confirmed exams will be held if safe to do so, I look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the whole education system to deliver credible qualifications for Scotland’s learners.”

HeraldScotland: SQA boss Fiona Robertson said the goal would be to deliver "credible" qualifications.SQA boss Fiona Robertson said the goal would be to deliver "credible" qualifications.

Ms Somerville said: "Exams will take place next year if safe to do so.

“Fairness for learners sitting exams in 2022 is at the heart of our plans. Assessment modifications across national courses for the next academic session have already been confirmed by the SQA in recognition of the disruption to learning that young people have experienced. We will set out details on further support available for learners in September.  

“Careful contingency planning has taken place in case there is further significant disruption to learning or if public health conditions do not allow for the holding of an examination diet."

She added: “These contingencies offer stability for teachers and learners in the coming academic session and will allow their focus to be on normal practices in teaching, learning and assessment. More detailed guidance will be issued by the SQA at the earliest opportunity.”