Exams and Assessments

An image of a young person in front of the text "No young person should be disadvantaged because they were assessed during a global pandemic."

Due to the pandemic, young people in Scotland have now faced disruption to SQA exams and assessments in two academic years― in 2020 and now in 2021.  Throughout that time, their right to education has been severely limited.

This year, standard National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams have been cancelled. They’ve been replaced by an Alternative Certification Model that will be used to determine a young person’s final grades.

In March, our Young Advisers raised their concerns about this alternative assessment system to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.

They talked about their concerns around returning to school after so long away to an extended period of assessment, and the impact this would have on mental health.

They spoke about a lack of sympathy and about experiencing chronic uncertainty.

That coming from online learning at home, back to school and assessments, would feel like going over a cliff edge.

Young people are vocal about the impact alternative assessments are having

Across Scotland, young people have been clear that they’ve experienced constant uncertainty over this year’s assessments.

When sitting their assessments in May and June, they told us about the pressure they were under and the anxiety they felt.

They told us that the approach to assessment and evidence was inconsistent across schools and even between subjects, and that this has meant young people had significantly different experiences.

They often don’t know which assessments affected their final grade. Guidance varied from subject to subject, making the situation even harder to understand.

That’s led to a sense of unfairness.

They’re doing a lot of different assessments, but don’t know which ones will matter more than others.

This is having a serious impact on their mental health.

Young people didn’t get study leave

Young people told us they had no study leave to revise as they would with a formal exam process.

They were expected to attend classes on the same day as doing assessments, and were unable to revise before and rest afterwards.

And the number of assessments was often much greater than young people would have in normal years.

Young people need an appeals process that protects their rights

Children have the right to an education that lets them reach their full potential, and an appeals process that lets them take action in cases where that hasn’t happened.

We don’t think the SQA’s appeals process for 2021 does that.

We said that the process must take exceptional circumstances into account, and that it should include circumstances likely to impact a young person’s performance like bereavement or mental ill-health.

Young people told us – and the SQA – that the appeals process should be on a no detriment basis. This means no young person could be downgraded as a result of appealing a grade— the risk of downgrading can be a barrier to young people asking for an appeal. 

But the SQA did not do this.

The pandemic has affected all young people differently. Some haven’t been able to access education in the same way as others, perhaps because they’ve been shielding. Some haven’t been provided with enough support. Others have been affected by digital exclusion.


Since the cancellation of 2021’s exams was announced, our office has raised concerns around the appeals process.

When the SQA consulted around the 2021 appeals process, we raised concerns that their consultation wasn’t accessible to young people and didn’t encourage them to participate. Our own response to the consultation raised  human rights concerns with the process.

In April we highlighted that the SQA’s Alternative Certification Model needed to take exceptional circumstances into account, just as they are in years where there isn’t a global pandemic. We also published an FAQ about how to ask for extra support at school.

And currently we’re continuing to highlight the need for these critical changes, sharing the concerns of young people and pointing to where Scottish Government can step in if needed.

Our work around 2020’s exam cancellations

Throughout the pandemic, our office has raised concerns to the Scottish Government and the SQA around exams and assessment.

Soon after lockdown in March 2020, our office warned the SQA and the Government of:

  • the risks of not involving children and young people in decision making, as is their human right,
  • the need for much greater transparency, and
  • the requirement to take a rights-based approach to ensure all potential disadvantage was mitigated.

Following results day in 2020, the Commissioner called on the SQA and Scottish Government to make sure all young people were treated fairly and get the results they deserve.

And our response to the Scottish Government’s independent review into the results process stressed the need for any future decisions to be made within a framework of children’s rights.

Our 2021 work

Our 2020 work

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