CHANGES to national assessments put in place in 2021 when exams were cancelled because of the Covid pandemic significantly increased teacher workload and made some teachers consider leaving the profession, research published today shows.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) study found many teachers hoped "the “alternative certification model” (ACM) would never be used again.

Most staff questioned said their workload in 2021 was much higher than in a normal year; 81 per cent said their workload was “much higher” than usual; 15 per cent said it was “higher”; and 4 per cent said it was “about the same”.

“A good number of respondents argued that the significantly increased workload in 2021 was difficult and stressful (‘almost unmanageable’, ‘virtually unworkable’) and expressed the hope that the system would not be used again.

"Indeed, more than one stated that the experience had made them question their continued involvement in the teaching profession," said the report.

The most common reason cited relating to extra work was increased marking, though teachers also pointed to extra time being needed for quality assurance procedures like cross-marking and verification, as well as the time needed to develop assessments and scheduling them while grappling with staffing issues caused by absence.  

“Several respondents suggested that the £400 compensation that they had received was derisory and would amount to substantially less than minimum wage when compared to the extra work the ACM had incurred for practitioners," the report said.

However, the report also revealed that most teachers believed the grades their learners received were fair (77 per cent thought the grades were fair; 13 per cent thought they were unfair), and over 90 per cent felt confident or very confident making marking judgements (92 per cent).

In contrast, pupils found the ACM helped reduced pressure and stress with many preferring continuous assessment to sitting exams.

However, criticism by pupils of the substitute system included over assessment and concerns over fairness.

Learners were less likely to agree the results they received in 2021 were fair: 69 per cent agreed or strongly agreed their results were fair, and 34 per cent said they were satisfied with the overall design of the assessment process in 2021.

Reasons for feelings of unfairness included lack of teaching time because of Covid, the volume of assessment that took place over a short space of time after the lockdown in early 2021, and the fact that exam papers were leaked online, giving some students an unfair advantage.

Students also took issue with the differing approaches taken to resitting assessments depending on the school. The report found some schools and councils banned resits but in others “learners were granted multiple attempts at assessments via resits”.

Teachers suggested a number of things that would have improved the 2021 alternative certification model, including “better communication from SQA, more rigorous quality assurance and a more uniform approach to marking across schools and local authorities”.

On overall judgments by both learners and teachers the report said: "Nearly 40 per cent of learners were satisfied with the assessment process in 2021; however, the same percentage were dissatisfied.

"Over 40 per cent of practitioners were dissatisfied with the overall design of the ACM in 2021, compared to just over a third who were satisfied."

The SQA research was based on surveys carried out by the SQA in November 2021.

In total, survey responses were received from 1,210 learners and 482 practitioners from schools and colleges across Scotland; 83 per cent were from state schools.

In-depth interviews were also carried out with learners, practitioners, and principal assessors from December 2021 to February 2022.

The report - entitled Experiences of the 2021 Alternative Certification Model (ACM) - is one of a number of pieces of research published by the SQA today.

It is published at a significant moment with an ongoing independent review of assessment and qualifications led by Professor Louise Hayward and recent calls for there to be less of a focus on end-of-year exams in the future, as well as more focus on teacher judgement.

Martyn Ware, head of policy, research and standards at the SQA, said: “The Covid pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for learners, teachers, lecturers and the wider education community here in Scotland, in the rest of the UK and internationally.

"As Scotland’s national awarding body, it was essential for us to evaluate the alternative certification model that was put in place in 2021, and to hear the lived experience of those who used it.

“The reports have helped to build a picture of the experiences of learners, teachers and lecturers from across Scotland in 2021. They reflect the diverse and often differing experiences and views of our education community. For example, while some felt positively toward the ACM, others reported feeling more stress or having a higher workload than in a normal exam year.

“The findings reflect the importance of the ongoing national discussions around the future of qualifications and assessment in Scotland as we look to the future, as well as highlighting the potential challenges of reaching a consensus on what changes may be appropriate.”

Mr Ware added: “We are immensely grateful to the learners, teachers and lecturers who gave their time to share their experiences to help inform the content of the evaluation.”

In 2020-21, the education system in Scotland, like elsewhere around the world, was required to adapt to an ever-changing situation because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. 

SQA developed the Alternative Certification Model (ACM) in conjunction with sector stakeholders following the Scottish Government’s announcements in October, and December 2020 cancelling exams for National 5 courses, and Highers and Advanced Highers courses, respectively.

The ACM was based on demonstrated attainment, whereby teachers and lecturers had to gather evidence of a candidates’ learning and skills before using their professional judgement to determine provisional grades for their learners.

The model – originally published in December 2020 to accommodate the cancellation of National 5 exams – was extended to cover Higher, and Advanced Higher courses once those exams were also cancelled.

Further revisions were made to the model in February 2021 following the closure of schools and colleges between December 2020 and March 2021 and the move to remote learning.

Learners were provided with their provisional results in June 2021, which were then certificated in August.