Fears schools will be unable to staff Scotland exam halls as SQA contractors reticent to work after revealing no pay for cancelled assessments in 2020

Scottish schools may be left “unable to staff exam halls”, politicians have warned, as Scottish Qualifications Authority contractors revealed they are reticent to sign up to work for the current exams session after being left without pay when assessments were cancelled due to Covid.

The SQA has been warned it may struggle to fill roles after invigilators told The Scotsman of their fear exams could be cancelled again.

When exams were scrapped during the first lockdown in 2020, contract staff say they were not paid for their cancelled hours – despite being banned from taking up work elsewhere in the terms of their agreement.

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Fears for this year have been fuelled after education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said pupils may have to wait until March to find out whether they will have to sit formal exams this year.

Exams were cancelled in summer 2020.Exams were cancelled in summer 2020.
Exams were cancelled in summer 2020.

Scottish Conservative spokesman Oliver Mundell warned that uncertainty could mean the SQA was unable to attract staff, wary to commit to work that may not take place.

He said: “The SNP must end the uncertainty for everyone now and confirm that exams will definitely go ahead.

“The confusion caused by their dithering is unacceptable. Invigilators, like everyone else in the exams process, deserve clarity. But if the education secretary doesn’t get a grip fast, the SQA may be left unable to properly staff exam halls.”

Mr Mundell added: “The SNP Government seem content to keep the situation under review, but that’s not good enough for pupils, teachers, parents and exam staff.”

The Scottish Government has said it plans to run a normal exam diet this year, unless public health advice changes dramatically.

But earlier this month, the SQA said it was likely the exams system would move into emergency measures within the next few weeks due to ongoing disruption related to Covid, which will see pupils given extra support during exams.

In a letter sent out to schools, colleges and training providers, the SQA said if significant levels of disruption continue, Scotland would move to “scenario two” of three measures laid out in August.

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Decision on Scottish school exams going ahead may not be made until March
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Donald Henry, who had worked as a chief invigilator at Kirkcudbright Academy for four years, has admitted he is now reticent to take on this year’s contract – in case exams are cancelled and he is left in the same situation again.

Mr Henry, from Dumfries and Galloway, signed a contract to work for the usual six-week exams period in 2020, when the pandemic first hit.

He – along with hundreds of other invigilators – had signed his contract in January, to run from the end of April to the beginning of June, before the exams session was cancelled.

He found himself without income, and was ineligible for any kind of furlough scheme or government support during that period. However, under the terms of his SQA contract, he was not allowed to take other employment.

Mr Henry said: “You cannot work for somebody else during that six-week period, for the duration of the exams because the actual contracts in 2020 had not been cancelled – only the exams – which would have placed us in breach of the paper-based signed agreement, had we earned income elsewhere.

“This [six week period] is my only income in the year as I have caring responsibilities, yet I still had to pay council tax and other bills. I had to dig into limited savings.”

Last year the Scottish Government and the SQA decided in advance that exams would not go ahead following blanket school closures in January 2021.

Mr Henry said: “I haven't accepted their invitation [to work] yet for this year because I'm seeking clarity on whether they're genuinely going to have exams. Having promised to set aside six weeks of your diary, as we did in 2021 and find that it's brushed aside and you're not required anymore, it is a worry.”

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Mr Henry said he was concerned that if he – and others in the same position – did not take on the invigilator roles, schools and pupils would be left without staff to run the exams session.

Scottish Liberal Democrat schools spokesperson Carole Ford said: “The Scottish Government’s claims around fair work should see invigilators being treated better than this.

“It cost the SQA less than half of what it normally did to run exams last year. Local authorities were left wondering what they had paid for.

"Teachers had to do the SQA’s job for a fee that didn’t cover the work. Now we learn they didn’t pay these invigilators either. It raises further questions about what the SQA was doing.”

In the summer, the Scottish Government said it hoped exams would go ahead as normal this year “if safe to do so”, but there were two other alternatives it would consider if the pandemic was not under control.

Under the second scenario, which is now likely to be implemented by the Scottish Government, pupils will be told which topics are likely to appear on the exam paper and may be able to take “additional support measures” such as formula sheets into exams.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), the second largest teachers’ union, recently called for an urgent review of whether formal exams can take place this year.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the SSTA, said: “With national qualifications, we need to make a decision on what we are going to do because if it goes wrong again we are going to have a horrible time.”

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A SQA spokesman said: “The SQA is planning and preparing for the 2022 exam diet to go ahead. Part of that preparation includes the ongoing recruitment of appointees in a variety of roles, including chief invigilators, to support the examination process.

"If Scottish ministers take the decision to cancel the examination diet due to changes in public health advice, we will review the situation regarding these appointee positions at that point.”

The spokesman added: “We're recruiting for chief invigilators at the moment and we're on track to fill those vacancies in line with the exam schedule.”

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