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Exams cancelled for the first time in history as Swinney pledges to protect vulnerable children

Deputy First Minister John Swinney
Deputy First Minister John Swinney

School exams have been cancelled for the first time in their 132-year history, Education Secretary John Swinney has said.

The day after announcing schools would close, Mr Swinney said pupils would not be sitting any exams including National 5 and Highers as he outlined the impact of the coronavirus on Scotland’s education system.

Mr Swinney also announced measures to protect vulnerable children and ensure that the 256,234 pupils eligible for free school meals still receive them. He also detailed arrangements for looking after the children of key workers in the NHS and emergency services.


Instead of exams, students would be graded by a “credible certification model”, which wold be based on coursework, teacher assessments of predicted grades and pupil performance in the past.

Pupils should still receive their results by August 4.

Mr Swinney said the academic achievements of those who miss out on exams must be “rightly and fairly recognised”.

“I want the 2020 cohort to hold their heads high and gain the qualifications and awards that they deserve, after many years of hard work,” he said.

“I know they will be very worried by the situation they face and I want them to be assured we are doing all that we can to deliver the best outcome for them.”

I am aware of how significant a step this is. Indeed, it is an unprecedented one in unprecedented times.”

John Swinney, Education Secretary

The Education Secretary said it was “a measure of the gravity of the challenge” that exams had to be abandoned for the first time since their introduction in 1888.

Mr Swinney pointed out that exams had been held throughout two World Wars, adding: “I am aware of how significant a step  this is. Indeed, it is an unprecedented one in unprecedented times.”

Despite schools being closed to limit the spread of the disease, Mr Swinney said teaching would continue through online and distance learning.

Senior phase pupils with coursework for national qualifications to complete will be informed by their schools how to complete this.

Teachers will set weekly learning tasks, which will be emailing to families and Mr Swinney said he was confident teachers would respond in a “creative and imaginative” way.

We will not cut adrift vulnerable young people who often rely on school life for hot meals and for a safe, nurturing and supportive environment.”

John Swinney

Local authorities will have the option of keeping some buildings open with reduced staffing, creating “hubs” which can be attended by vulnerable children and children of key workers.

Councils will also be urged to work with private childcare providers including child minders to help parents with childcare.

With many vulnerable children relying on school for some stability in their lives, Mr Swinney promised they would not be abandoned.

“We will not cut adrift vulnerable young people who often rely on school life for hot meals and for a safe, nurturing and supportive environment,” the Education Secretary said.

Tory shadow education secretary Jamie Greene said: “This is clearly a deeply worrying time for pupils, parents and those in the childcare and teaching industries, but the Scottish Government has our full support on this.

“The decision to close schools and nurseries is one of the most difficult any government can take and, while understandable and inevitable, it will have a lasting impact on the future lives of many young people.

“There do remain unanswered questions about how and which key workers will be provided schooling and childcare, the role of the private nursery sector in all of this, and how pupils will be effectively graded in the absence of exams. These questions are not insurmountable, but will require government to react quickly to allay fears, concerns and inform people quickly and accurately.”

Here is a short summary of the Education Secretary’s announcement:

Exams cancelled

Instead of exams, pupils will be assessed by coursework, teacher assessments of estimated grades and prior attainment as the basis of certification.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority will need coursework and grade predictions to be submitted on deadline or sooner.

Vulnerable children

The government has committed to working with councils to ensure eligible children continue to get free school meals.

Local authorities are looking at options on how this can be done, including the Shetland model where direct payments and vouchers have been provided to families whose children are entitled to free school meals.

Other local authorities are considering opening community campuses to provide meals or to enable young people or families to collect food.

There is a £70m food fund to support households who may be worried about accessing food. The cash will also go towards free school meals.

Work is being done to ensure vulnerable children continue to get the support schools and nurseries provide.

Children with complex additional support needs in residential special schools will continue to receive the care they need.

Chief Social Work Officers will give special consideration is given to supporting vulnerable children at increased risk – for example when lone-parents have become too unwell to look after their children.

Pupil Equity Funding, introduced to improve attainment, is to become more flexible so headteachers can use the cash to support the most vulnerable.

This also applies to schools receiving Challenge Authority and Schools’ Programme funding.

Children of key workers

Mr Swinney is working with councils to provide childcare for the children of NHS staff, emergency services and other key workers.

Some local authorities may follow the example of Shetland which has introduced a “hub” to provide childcare.

Another council intends to create a number of hubs to provide care, learning and activities for children.

Childcare in the early years

Although many nurseries will close, Mr Swinney does not want all to shut their doors. Private and third sector nurseries can remain open as long as they are solely supporting vulnerable children or key workers’ children.

In a bid to stop nurseries from folding, the government is continuing funding streams which allow contractual payments to private and third sector providers, including childminders.

This is worth around £220 million to the sector in the year ahead. Mr Swinney admitted the coronavirus outbreak would have “an impact” on the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans to expand childcare.

The Scottish Budget allocated £201 million in 2020/21 to support the proposal for 1,140 hours expanssion.

As of now, however, local authorities will be given the freedom to deploy that cash flexibly to support families and nurseries.

Further and higher education

Many universities and colleges are ending face-to-face teaching and switching online.

On funding, Mr Swinney said the Student Awards Agency Scotland had robust measures in place to ensure their business services keep going. He also pledged to try and keep funding students on time.


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