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 They’ve been replaced by an Alternative Certification Model that will be used to determine a young person’s final grades.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.


With secondary schools going back to full time learning, some young people will find they have been affected more than others by not being in school.  This means that they have had a bigger interruption to their learning than others in their class, so they’ll need extra help.

Some reasons you might have been disproportionately affected are:

  • You couldn’t follow online learning because you didn’t have a laptop or tablet, or enough data, or the device you had was too old to run software you needed,
  • Your internet connection meant you couldn’t watch video lessons or attend online classes,
  • You usually get extra help in class from teachers or someone else, but you didn’t get this during online learning,
  • You were asked to self-isolate, so you missed more in-person school than your friends did,
  • You have a disability that made online learning more difficult for you— like being deaf, having a physical or visual impairment or being dyslexic, dyspraxic, autistic or neurodiverse in another way,
  • Your home and family circumstances made online learning difficult, for example because you had to help look after younger brothers and sisters, your family were homeless, you experienced domestic abuse, you were living in a care home; or English is not the language you usually speak at home,
  • You are a young carer and you had to do more than usual,
  • Someone close to you was seriously ill or has died.

Schools need to make sure all young people are properly supported. It is important they do so for those who have been affected more than others due to the pandemic. That makes it more likely that grades will be fair when they are assessed. 

What do I do if I think I need extra support?

You may need extra support to help you learn now that schools are back.  Schools must provide you with the support you need – and help you work out what will help you best. 

If you think you need extra support in some way, you should talk to someone at your school.  Who this should be will be different from school to school, but some of the people it might be are:

  • Your class teacher,
  • Your guidance or pupil support teacher.

When you talk to someone, you should explain why you think what has happened over the last two school years has affected you in a disproportionate way. 

Your teachers should talk to you about what they will do to help you. For example, if you have missed school work they might arrange for you to have some extra support.  You should talk to your teachers if you are concerned about how they will take your needs into account when you are doing assessments.

What if I’m not happy with the support my school arranges? What if my school doesn’t offer me extra support?

If you are not happy with the support you get, or aren’t offered extra support, you could make a formal complaint. 

If you go to a local authority (Council) run school (which is almost all state schools in Scotland), the Council that runs your school will have details of its Complaints Policy on their website. 

You should make your complaint in writing if you can and say that you are making a formal complaint under the Council’s complaints policy.  You should provide as much detail as possible.  You should address your complaint to your school’s Headteacher – if they are not the person who will deal with your complaint, then they should pass it on to the right person.  You can ask [the person dealing with your complaint] to answer your complaint in writing.

If you’re still not happy you can ask the Council to look at it again.  This is called a Stage 2 complaint.  You should be told how to do this when they respond to your first complaint, but if not you should write to your Headteacher, telling them you want to make a Stage 2 complaint. 

What if I am still not happy after making a Stage 2 complaint?

You can ask one of two independent bodies to look at your complaint.  

If your complaint is about additional support needs you may be able to refer it to the Health and Education Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal for Scotland. (sometimes called the ASN Tribunal) 

If your complaint was not about additional support needs, you can ask the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman (SPSO) to look at it. 

Both of these have lots of information about how to complain on their websites. 

Who can help me when I try to get extra support from school?

My Rights My Say are funded by the Scottish Government to help young people aged 12-15 exercise their rights to additional support. Enquire can provide advice to young people of any age and their parents.  You can call them on 0345 123 2303 or visit their website.

Young people have all experienced lockdown differently, but some have been forced to self-isolate, not had the in-school support they usually rely on, taken on additional burdens at home, and experienced many more challenges along the way. That is why it is so important that young people who feel they need it, know the ways they can get support, and use them if they feel they need to. So if you think you might need any extra help or support , or you’d like to know more about the options available to you, start by speaking to your school about the support you feel you need.

If you feel you need any additional support, that is where this FAQ comes in. It has been developed by the CYPCS team to provide you with some practical suggestions about what you can do if you think you are not being treated fairly.”

—Cameron Garrett, MSYP

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 how they’ll be assessed this year.

Now as they sit their assessments, they’re telling us about the pressure they’re under and the anxiety they feel.

They can see that the approach to assessment and evidence is inconsistent across schools, and that this has meant young people have had significantly different experiences.

That’s led to a sense of unfairness.

And they often don’t know which assessments will affect their final grade. Guidance varies from subject to subject, which makes it even harder to understand.

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 aren’t getting study leave

Young people are telling us they’ve had no study leave to revise as they would with a formal exam process.

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

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

They have told us this system can feel like one where you’re being assessed constantly― without a clear idea of the impact any one assessment will make on your final grade.

Young people sitting alternative assessments need extra support

The pressures young people are under mean their mental health is coming under serious strain.

And the pandemic has meant that other forms of support that would exist to help young people manage a formal exam process – like scribes or extra time – aren’t always there this year.

We need to see extra support in schools to help young people get through this time, without their mental health getting even worse.

Young people need an appeals process that protects their rights

The SQA hasn’t published its appeals process, and it needs to do so urgently. We need to know it’s fair, and that it protects young people’s 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.

In particular:

The appeals process must take exceptional circumstances into account

The SQA needs to take into account exceptional circumstances as part of the appeals process.

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.

It should also include other exceptional circumstanceslikely to impact a young person’s performance, like bereavement or physical or mental ill-health.

It is crucial that appeal grounds are wide enough to allow unforeseen disadvantages to be corrected. 

Young people shouldn’t be penalised for accessing the appeals process

It’s essential that the appeals process be one of no detriment. That means that there shouldn’t be any negative consequences for a person who makes an appeal.

In particular, it shouldn’t be possible to end up with a lower mark as a result of appealing a grade. There should be no barriers for young people to using an appeal process due to fear of negative consequences.

Young people need to be able to set things right if the way they’re assessed is flawed

If young people have been assessed in a way that put them at a disadvantage, they need to have access to redress or remedy. That means they need to be able to set things right, and have the disadvantage they faced considered.

Scottish Government needs to step in if the appeals process isn’t rights respecting

If the SQA don’t create an appeals system that respects young people’s rights, then Scottish Government needs to step in.

Ministers have the power to direct the SQA. They can say it has to:

  • accept appeals arising from a wider range of circumstances
  • accept direct appeals from young people.

And Ministers should do this if it ends up being necessary.


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