Two of Scotland’s key national education organisations – its exam body and its inspection and curriculum body – are to be reformed, the Scottish government has announced.
This afternoon education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said she planned to reform the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland, “looking at the role, remit and purpose of the organisations, as well as considering their functions and governance arrangements”.
The announcement came around two hours after first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she had full confidence in the SQA.
Both bodies have come under increasing scrutiny over their performance during the coronavirus pandemic – Education Scotland over the support it has provided to teachers, and the SQA over the results fiasco last year and its apparent failure to learn from its mistakes.
In February MSPs voted for "substantial reform" of the organisations, saying they had "not met the expectations or requirements of hardworking teachers, pupils or parents throughout the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic".
However, the Scottish Greens' education spokeperson, Ross Greer, pointed out that Ms Somerville’s appetite for reform appeared to be at odds with the position taken by the first minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier in the afternoon. During First Minister’s Questions today Ms Sturgeon said she had full confidence in the SQA.
Changes ahead for Education Scotland and the SQA, says Shirley-Anne Somerville
Speaking in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon, Ms Somerville said she wanted to “look at options for reform that ensure that schools get the best possible support and challenge”.
She added: “Today I want to signal my intention to start this process by considering how to reform our two key national education agencies – the SQA and Education Scotland. This will include looking at the role, remit and purpose of the organisations, as well as considering their functions and governance arrangements. This will be a key priority for me and will be informed by the findings of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] review on 21 June.”
Reacting to the announcement, EIS teaching union general secretary Larry Flanagan welcomed the plans for reform, saying the SQA needed to be “more accountable to the education system and profession” and Education Scotland needed to be “free to challenge government rather than being an extension of the civil service”.
He also said the “usefulness of the current inspection process” needed to be reviewed.
Mr Flanagan said: “Our members have often found the SQA to be too remote from classroom practice and a significant generator of additional workload for teachers. Reform of the qualifications body should be matched by changes to the senior phase, which focus on creating time for deeper learning, breadth of study and parity between ‘academic’ and vocational’ qualifications.”
Teachers have lost confidence in both the #SQA & Education Scotland and an overhaul of systems and structures is now needed in the best interests of schools, teachers and pupils. However, these reforms must be more than a cosmetic exercise. https://t.co/ExhEeqUcV1 https://t.co/B51i3I0TOZ— NASUWT Scotland (@NASUWT_Scotland) June 3, 2021
However, the Scottish Conservatives' education spokesperson, Oliver Mundell, said that the bodies should be scrapped, not reformed.
“It’s time for the government to act. Reversing the decision to allow grades to be downgraded on appeal and axing – not reforming, axing – failing education bodies like the SQA would send a strong message that this government is in listening mode and ready to reset and rebuild trust," he said.
“Inaction will simply confirm more of the same and reinforce the cosy arrangement at the heart of this SNP government, which allows everyone off the hook.
“We will find out in pretty short order if the cabinet secretary is [former education secretary] John Swinney 2.0 or if she is serious about making the hard choices needed to improve the life chances of our young people.”
Responding to the announcement by Ms Somerville, SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said: “I welcome the review announced today by the cabinet secretary and the SQA will play a full part in that review. Our focus remains on working with the whole education system to support our young people to get the qualifications they deserve this year.
“The successful delivery of qualifications in Scotland relies on all parts of the education system working together in partnership. It is important that our qualifications meet the needs of learners and employers, and support our economic recovery.”