The Education Secretary has personally sought reassurances from examiners after revision support material designed to ease pressure on pupils was blasted as insulting, unfair and shambolic.

Shirley-Anne Somerville's intervention follows publication by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) of measures aimed at assisting Covid-hit learners ahead of this year’s National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher diet – the first since 2019.

Exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. They will only be scrapped again if public health measures prevent physical gatherings.

The SQA said earlier this year that guidance would be released to aid revision in view of ongoing disruption and high absence rates linked to the Omicron variant. It has now produced what senior figures insist is a “wide-ranging package of support”. SQA bosses also stressed their materials had been produced in collaboration with pupils and teachers across Scotland.

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Help is being provided in three ways: advance notice of content that will, or will not, be assessed in exams; study guides offering hints and tips on how to approach different types of question; short study notes that can be be taken into the exam hall by candidates in a small number of courses.

However, the measures are at the centre of a storm of criticism amid anger over the unhelpful, patronising nature of some of the guidance and significant variation in arrangements for specific subjects.

Ewan Knight, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, tweeted: “Personally I find the SQA’s ‘helpful’ advice insulting... ‘Read the question carefully’ and ‘If there are 6 marks, you should make at least 6 relevant points in your answer’. Everyone knows this already. The difference in support depending on subjects is also awful.”

The Herald: Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People's Commissioner, is concerned about SQA exam support arrangements.Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People's Commissioner, is concerned about SQA exam support arrangements.

Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People's Commissioner, has added to the criticism. He said: “We are hugely concerned to see the revision support materials from the SQA fails to meet the needs and expectations of young people and the teaching staff who support them.

"After years of educational disruption, young people need significant extra support. Scottish Government and the SQA must take their views seriously and respond urgently.  

“Young people have had their right to education severely limited over several years and they should be given robust guidance to help them prepare for their exams. Revision guidance should be targeted, detailed and build confidence. Exam results can expand or limit a young person’s opportunities to work and to access further and higher education choices.  

“The SQA and the Scottish Government need to deliver on their obligations to provide an education that develops young people to their fullest. This includes mitigating the impacts of educational disruption by publishing clear, comprehensive revision materials that are useful to young people who have lost a significant part of their learning due to Covid-19.” 

Eileen Prior, executive director at parents' organisation Connect, said the lack of clear consistency across subjects felt "incredibly inequitable".

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Leaders at the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, stressed that the crucial factor in addressing Covid-linked disruption would be adequate provision of study and tutoring support.

General secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The EIS has been clear since plans were announced that this package alone will be insufficient mitigation of the impact of Covid disruption to learning, particularly for the most disadvantaged young people.

"What will be more important at this stage in seeking to address the effects of this year’s disruption to learning will be the additional resources promised to schools for additional study support and the enhancement of support from Education Scotland through the e-sgoil programme.

"It is critical that the young people whose families and communities have been worst affected by the pandemic and who have the least access to private tutoring at home, are fully supported in school to access the additional supports that are being made available. The EIS is seeking subject specific feedback from members on the utility of the revision support for their particular subject areas.”

The Herald: EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said resources aimed at providing additional study support for exams would be crucially important.EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said resources aimed at providing additional study support for exams would be crucially important.

Responding to the latest concerns, Ms Somerville said: "I have sought reassurances from SQA that learners and teachers are getting the support they need to prepare for this year’s exams. 

“Over and above the materials just published by the SQA, significant modifications have already been made to exams to take account of disruption to learning. In addition, targeted exam preparation sessions will be available to those who most need it over the Easter break, on top of support available through the national e-learning offer.

"I will continue to listen carefully to pupils, students, parents, carers and teaching staff to ensure that fairness is at the centre of the exam diet.”

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Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “These revision materials and guidance are part of SQA’s commitment to providing a substantial package of additional support for learners – which includes significant modifications to this year's exams and assessments – as they make the final preparations for their exams.

“The measures are the fairest and best way we can help support all learners, while also maintaining the integrity, credibility and standard of the qualifications.”

She added: “Everyone at SQA recognises the professionalism of Scotland’s teachers and lecturers and their commitment to learners across the country. Scotland’s young people are to be commended for their hard work and resilience as they overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic.”