Ongoing impact of exam cancellations on home educators

No official response has yet been forthcoming from the cabinet secretary for education and skills, John Swinney MSP, to the joint letter sent in October 2020 by Home Education Scotland, which urged him to ensure that any new SQA exams and grading arrangements would take into account the needs of home educated candidates. However, we understand from the Learning Directorate that discussions have been taking place and we have been asked to feed back information on the number of home educated young people affected.  

In order to gauge the impact on home educators, we asked members to let us know if they expected to be affected by cancellations in 2021, whether they had been affected in 2020, and which types of (planned but unobtainable due to cancellation) qualifications are/were involved due to lack of alternative grading arrangements. 

We also asked what measures they thought would be most helpful to address the lack of inclusion of a minority of learners (e.g. online exams, either at a centre or from home; provision of independent assessors). Many members offered helpful advice based on their own research and experience, some of which we have reproduced below to assist others.

Regrettably, national Scottish qualifications have become increasingly difficult to access via self-study and distance learning, which has resulted in the majority of home educators opting for alternative routes. The current Covid crisis has undoubtedly shaken home educators’ confidence in the government’s commitment to equality, inclusion and children’s rights, and is likely to lead to further abandonment of Scottish qualifications that are already more difficult to access. To add insult to injury, home educating families have been left in limbo and out of pocket by some of the few available centres that have reneged, albeit involuntarily, on their promised services. 

We have collated and anonymised the responses we received, both those posted on our forum and via private communication, and are sharing the findings with the Scottish Government who are ‘continuing to explore with partners how home educated learners can gain certification this year’. We are unsure who these ‘partners’ are, but the children’s rights ‘defenders’ have all been conspicuous by their silence on this particular issue, while simultaneously championing the UNCRC incorporation bill that is currently making its way through parliament.  

General observations

Lack of access to SQA qualifications over the past several years, in particular since traditionally examined Highers were phased out in favour of internally assessed certification, has resulted in many more home educators opting for GCSEs, IGCSEs, A Levels, International Baccalaureate, Open University and American SATs, as well as part-time enrolment at FE colleges. 

There is also significant movement of families to Scotland from other parts of the UK and some with nomadic lifestyles who want to ensure consistency of access to exams and national qualifications for their children and do not want to have to switch syllabuses or exam boards mid-course.

We moved from England in March 2020, iGCSE x 2 for 2 children, cancelled in England for June 2020, taken in England November 2020, GCSEs cancelled for June 2021, child enrolled for flexischool to get teacher assessment equivalent to S4 so he can proceed in Scottish system full time from June. Attended for one day, now online learning.

We are hoping to still take the IGCSE this year in Edinburgh. We’ve just moved up from England and generally don’t have tutors to be able to get a teacher assessment.

Home educators are, of necessity, resourceful when it comes to tackling bureaucracy and finding ways to access qualifications, and we regularly signpost families to dedicated exams support groups for up-to-date information and advice. However, Covid has dealt a crushing blow to all external candidates, many of whom have lost out financially as well as on grades, despite having completed their courses in the expectation that they would be examined in the usual way. Ongoing uncertainty over arrangements for 2021 continues to cause distress and anxiety as they feel their needs as independent learners have been callously disregarded for the second year in a row.

Home educators’ comments

Daughter is currently doing two courses through Scottish Highers Online.

I am having to find someone who can sit for the prelims. Obviously no formal exam but any provisions that could have been made as sitting only candidate were rejected due to schools and colleges having to close, social distance and the uncertainty of whether or not they will be open. SQA need information early so it’s not possible to leave until the last minute.

None of the schools or college will allow her to sit as a sitting only candidate as they have no idea when schools will be reopened or with what measures in place. Wallace college won’t allow a sitting only and I would need to pay again to allow her to sit prelims.

SHO are saying it’s down to me. For the prelims only it could just be a person “person of authority”. Yet that leaves that open doesn’t it? And who will agree to invigilate for no financial compensation. Never mind during a pandemic with restrictions etc. When I signed up to SHO they said it was all arranged. Just as course started the message sent out with the course work was that we had to find and arrange. Not impressed as it could have been a game changer going forward. £600 wasted as it currently stands.

The home education officer is trying all she can to sort this and make sure she can still do the prelims but she is unsure if the council will approve this or not.

Last year, two planned exams – GCSE (self-study) and IGCSE (DLP via My Online Schooling). Dropped the GCSE as it looked to be too difficult to obtain the right sort of evidence (it was Astronomy which didn’t help). Got a predicted grade via MOS and Wallace College for the IGCSE, helped that she already had four in other sciences/Maths from 2019 and same exam centre.

There was some discussion about a possible exam centre in Glasgow but when I contacted them last year they were very limited in what they could offer. Wallace College were amazing with this year’s mess and I’m trying to book them for next year as well.

In the central belt, other providers have been patchy. There’s the Russian Centre in Glasgow (registered with Edexcel to do Russian exams and able to offer some others I think) but when I contacted them, they weren’t offering all sittings and subjects. It’s possibly worth asking.

My eldest who is 16 in April would be 4th year if at school. He was going to do his exams 2021 as he wants to train as a pilot but now feels at a complete disadvantage. He’s been home educated for 8 years and has no desire to go to school as he was badly bullied hence why we went home ed.

My daughter was due to sit 4 iGCSEs in 2020 as a private candidate. We have gone through them ourselves, so had no independent evidence to present to be awarded a grade. And it would have proved too expensive to obtain enough evidence independently to satisfy Loretto (where she was to sit – although I would say the EO did everything in his power to help). We sat iGCSE Maths and English Language; in November but had to ditch English Lit and History as it would be too much to revise for those on top of the work for 2021 exams. We moved forward with continuing work for iGCSE Human Biology, Edexcel (self taught) and started A level Maths and English Lit (CIAE). Again we are going it alone. Our decision to do so was based on the government’s insistence exams would not be cancelled. My daughter’s hope was to go onto study Higher Human Biology at college after the summer- but needs the iGCSE. We choose CIAE as we can split the exams over two years: AS in 2021 and A2 in 2022.

My son (summer 2020): My ASD son (who has learning challenges and high levels of anxiety related to ASD) was booked to sit 2 IGCSEs (we were staggering his exams slowly at a pace that worked for him). When exams were cancelled he could not apply for a grade because 1) he was self-studying one of his two subjects and had no evidence; 2) our exam centre (Glenalmond) refused to provide grades for private candidates anyway. Our only option was to withdraw from the exams and arrange to sit them at a later date.

My daughter (summer 2020): My daughter went down the A Level route due to the challenges of accessing SQA Highers as a private candidate. When exams were cancelled she also had insufficient evidence to get a grade, and again the exam centre refused to help. She walked away with nothing.

My son (summer 2021): This year he is doing a ‘repeat year’ to sit his missed exams, which means we have pushed back what we had originally planned for him this year to accommodate that. I had to pay for an online course (that he did not need!) purely so that if the exams are cancelled again he has evidence for that subject. We had to switch exam centres to find somewhere that is not going to let us down this time. That has been a journey in itself. IGCSE exam centres have been reluctant to take private candidates this year and those that are open to that cannot necessarily promise to help secure grades if exams are cancelled again. That’s a lot of uncertainty to navigate an anxious ASD lad through, and keep him focused and get him exam ready (or not, whatever the case may be) We now have an exam centre (Wallace) who have said they will help provide a grade if required, but we have no idea what that process might look like yet, or how much of a price tag it might carry.

My daughter (summer 2021): After the disappointment of A Levels we decided to switch to SQA Highers instead of aiming to redo A levels, and she enrolled with Forth Valley College so that she would be an internal candidate instead, and therefore guaranteed a grade. However, Human Biology Higher she could not do at college due to a timetable clash, so registered with Scottish Highers Online for distance learning. In December, around a week before the Higher exams were cancelled, SHO cancelled the course! 3 months of work down the pan. We then had to contact every college in Scotland to see if any of them would transfer her in to allow her to complete the Higher. Beyond stressful! Thankfully Fife College came to the rescue, but she is having to start from scratch and do the whole course in 5 months. But better that than getting no grade at all. It really shouldn’t be this difficult for our kids to get a fair cop at qualifications.

I’ve had to pull my 14-year-old out half way through S3 and have just started self-educating. We decided to go with 5 x Nat 5 courses – English, maths, biology, mod studs and history. We are sticking to Nat 5 courses (using every resource possible from online/books etc) and not iGCSE with the hope that I can work out some form of exam actions for her come 2022 when she should be sitting them.

I’ve just been looking at exam centres, so think we will go for IGCSE, although the courses look a bit different to the Nat5, so I’m hoping there will be plenty of overlap. We’ll definitely keep going with Maths, and I’m using Catherine Mooney tutoring for English. She’s really good with support so far. It’s awful that the kids feel this way, but part of me thinks this is the best year to do it, with all the constant upheaval anyway. If we stick with home ed, then any external changes won’t impact them any further. I just feel that 14 is so young to be worrying about exams and qualifications, especially since they’ll forever now be part of the ‘covid generation’ where it’s all been disrupted so much.

My kids would love to start their Scottish home education from afar. They have been in the international baccalaureate so far.

As far as I can tell, you just need a ‘professional’ friend willing to let them sit the exam in their house. So they would be sent the exam and sign to say they witnessed it etc. It leaves it very open, but their hope is that if someone has to sign and witness it, they are likely to take it seriously.

Previous to exams being cancelled I had a sitting arrangement with Fife College, who I have now transferred to for my human biology. They have been super helpful if you want to ask them to try arrange something.

I had this situation last year. However, the centre he was going to sit exams at (where some of his tutors teach) put him through prelims (1 a day for a week) just as schools closed. It wasn’t ideal but they were able to give estimated grades and he got his Highers.

Rather than sit Nat5s, students could go straight to Higher next year as long as you cover all the course content for Nat5. Some (independent) schools skip Nat5 in some subjects. Nat5s are really hard to do via home ed at the best of times. This year with it being teacher assessment it is harder than ever. Even those signed up with online providers are finding it hard to get an exam centre. I hate to sound doom and gloom but want to be realistic.

Wallace College in Edinburgh can offer prelims at Nat 5 level and submit grades from those to SQA. We are having to do that for my daughter’s Maths Nat 5 this year. You need to register with them by 11th Feb and there is a cost for any exam. Think it’s £150-170 for Nat 5 off top of my head but that’s for one subject. Wallace College have been super helpful and managed to get people grades last year in the chaos when other centres couldn’t.

A few people have used American SATs as qualifications for university entry.

My youngest is affected as she was due to take her (US) SATs this year and all test centers here have cancelled the tests.

Have a look at the OU. No need for Nationals. Our son started on it when 15, (you have to do an interview if under 16). Now about 1/3rd through a degree. 

I am an English teacher currently home educating. N5’s are cancelled, and it is only possible to enter through an SQA approved centre. Grades this year will be decided by teachers. It will be virtually impossible to do N5s at home. English Literature iGCSE run by Cambridge International can be done at home and is much more straightforward. There are costs involved and you need to pay the fees yourself.

She is currently in s4 and due to do national 5 qualifications. She will then either go to college or do another year at home. Qualifications are a priority but I can’t seem to find how we can do that from home. I’ve been told she can sit exams at a school, but due to covid, exams are cancelled and they are assessing work throughout. Plenty of resources but lacking this crucial piece. I’ve even considered signing her up to an internet school but they have an English curriculum and she would have to restart s3.

For external candidates, Wallace is excellent. In Glasgow they do a Saturday school which has classes and revision and I think they do exams for their pupils as they are registered for SQA. Presumably if you couldn’t sit them due to Covid then they would assist with getting a grade.

Make sure you have an exam centre lined up first and find out what exam boards they are registered with. This will determine your syllabus options. You are looking to pick a syllabus that is open to private candidates – i.e. no coursework component, 100% final exam. This means that not all GCSEs can be done and you might have to opt for IGCSE instead. Assuming you have access to all exam boards, maths could be done as either GCSE or IGCSE, but English would need to be IGCSE.

Most tend to opt for either Cambridge IGCSE English, or Edexcel IGCSE English (spec A and B are both available) For maths popular choices are Edexcel IGCSE/GCSE or Cambridge IGCSE. But do check which boards your exam centre offer. You don’t want to prep for a particular syllabus then find there is nowhere to sit it, and there are differences in each syllabus so you need to cover the right one for the exam.

You would have to find a college that would accept a portfolio of work, which isn’t always an easy thing to do. I would contact colleges in advance and try speaking with them. My own daughter wants to study for a degree in midwifery and the centres for the SATs that she needs for university entry are closed and I contacted the university in Glasgow who told me to have her apply through UCAS as usual as if she were taking the SATs and then when the time comes if it’s still cancelled, they will do it on basis of interview and her High School Diploma which she will have as we follow an American curriculum. It’s always worth contacting colleges and universities directly first I have found when it comes to home educated students.

My older son took IGCSEs and then went to college to sit Scottish Highers. He then moved on to a HNC, and is now at uni. My younger son is 14, and would be s3. He’ll likely take IGCSEs too, but may do something more vocational at college. Like many Scottish home educators, I follow the English national curriculum for exam years, and my sons took / will take international GCSEs, as these can be easier to access from home ed. Up to that stage, we’ve been fairly eclectic in our learning.

My two oldest are now at college having never done any formal exams during home education. There are numerous routes into further education with Scottish exams only being one of them.

Universities here will also take the IB so it’s worth looking into that before trying to follow the Scottish Curriculum most of which cannot be accessed by home educators due to the exam format. The majority of qualifications have required a component of continuous assessment although I think some were changing. The other problem was getting into an exam centre.

UHI is really good with home ed kids and a lot of FE colleges are.

The wish-list 

Members underlined the need for one of the recommendations in our Home Truths report to be adopted in revised statutory guidance, namely that LAs should be strongly encouraged to make resources available and facilitate exam access for home educated external candidates.

Going forward, could the Scottish Government not have something in place to ensure independent and sitting only candidate have access to their local school to sit exams?

My daughter should be good now, given all her qualifications are going through a college this time. I would just like some reassurance really, that my son will leave this academic year with some qualifications. And for it to just get easier for home ed families to be able to access exams in Scotland from here on in.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if the Scottish Government set up a National Home Education Exams portal through which home educated children could be entered, submit their coursework, and sit their exams online?

My son is still p7, heading to S1, but I would like an independent centre for exams, I know little of other structures but feel there is space to bring a new structure into place.

The OU and some other universities, including St Andrews, have made arrangements for online exams, which is something that could surely be explored for home educated students. 

Ofqual & DfE

Elsewhere in the UK, where greater numbers of home educated young people have been affected, the issue is finally being taken seriously by Ofqual and the DfE.

Written evidence submitted to the Westminster Education Committee in July 2020 by the Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter, outlined the effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment.

The policy of cancelling examinations without offering suitable substitutes for home educated children who are usually not eligible for predicted grades risks failing a generation of home-educated children from the educational progression into post-16 and post-18 education they would normally access.

Our research finds that there is a significant detrimental impact on home educated children due to take exams. Typically home educated students sit exams as independent candidates, this has left many without either an exam or a predicted grade and financially impacted.

Home educating parents continue to be unclear about what the government will do to support their children missing out on exam results and lost progression opportunities to the detriment of their children’s education.

One of the researchers is currently conducting a new survey to inform the DfE’s deliberations, and families in Scotland who are pursuing English-based qualifications may wish to contribute their views.

A petition to the UK Parliament, Require local exam centres to accept home-educated students for public exams, has amassed 10,500+ signatures, which means the UK Government will need to make a formal response.

Home-educated students need guaranteed access to suitable local examination centres at affordable prices, enabling them to have the same rights and access to qualifications as every other child in the UK

A second petition, Give students the option to take exams or receive assessed grades for 2020/21, has also garnered 10,300+ signatures.

The Government should allow private candidates and current students the option to take exams in Summer 2021, if they choose to do so. Meanwhile, others who opt out should be given fairly assessed grades based off classroom results, teacher predictions etc. Such results must also be standardised.

Ofqual has announced  in the past week that GCSEs and A-levels are likely to be partly assessed by cut-down versions of exams.

Lebus highlighted the need to accommodate of students not affiliated to schools, including home-schooled <sic> students sitting exams as independent candidates. Last year many complained they were ignored and unable to obtain crucial qualification.

“We will consider carefully the different experiences of private candidates and the opportunities available to them to make sure the approach is fair to all,” Lebus said.

In addition, Ofqual and the DfE have just published an open consultation on how GCSE, AS & A Level grades should be awarded in 2021. The respondent information can be downloaded here and it should be noted that the timescale is very tight with a closing date of 29 January 2021. 

Most relevant to home educated and independent candidates is Section 11 and we would urge home educators in Scotland who are pursuing Ofqual exams (GCSE and A Levels) to submit their views.


Noting the disproportionate disadvantage experienced by private candidates who did not receive a grade last year, the consultation document acknowledges that “any further delay could have significant consequences for their progression” and presents a series of questions as to candidates’ preferred options to address the issue.


Tutors and Exams, who facilitated remote exam access for some candidates in 2020, have just published their own detailed observations on the impact of the suggested arrangement to assess private candidates

Private Candidates fall outside of the DfEs remit, thereby cut off from the support normally found within mainstream education. Therefore, we are delighted that Ofqual and the DfE are actively seeking to find solutions for Private Candidates. We must not forget that there are also thousands of Private Candidates that been unable to continue their studies for a host of reasons, many of which are often complex and nuanced. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problems many Private Candidates face. ‘A perfect storm’ if you will.
 . . . the DfE, Ofqual and all Awarding Bodies are actively working to provide a solution that Private Candidates can engage with to ensure they get the grades they deserve. As with everything, the solution may not be to everyone’s satisfaction. Nonetheless, there will be a solution. We have made our voice heard, ultimately it’s the decision of the DfE and the Regulator.
Pearson (Edexcel) are also providing regular updates on exam support and changes to their qualifications for 2021.
International GCSEs and International A Levels are used by students around the world and, as such, these exams are still intended to be available as planned. We are conscious that some schools will have students who are due to sit International GCSEs in January, but are now required to close due to national restrictions. We will be in touch very shortly with confirmation on arrangements here.

In Scotland, we remain hopeful that the Scottish Government and SQA will find a way to meet the needs of the small minority of home educated candidates affected by this year’s cancellations and will give due consideration to making reasonable adjustments to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in the future simply because they study independently of schools, often due to additional support needs.

See also:

Exams & Qualifications information
Home educated candidates need equal access to SQA exams (October 2020)
Home educated candidates doubly disadvantaged by cancelled exams (October 2020)
Home educated candidates to be ‘cancelled’ along with 2021 exams? (August 2020)
Ofqual guidance for ‘locked-down’ private candidates (April 2020)
Parliamentary Question on access to SQA exams and qualifications for home educated young people (July 2017)


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