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by Andrew Learmonth
03 June 2021
Education minister announces plans to overhaul under-fire SQA

Scottish Parliament youtube

Education minister announces plans to overhaul under-fire SQA

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has announced plans to reform Scotland’s underfire exam body. 

The minister told MSPs the role, remit and purpose of both the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland "will be considered, as well as their functions and governance arrangements.” 

Her surprise announcement came just hours after Nicola Sturgeon said she had full confidence in the SQA.

Somerville said the reform plans would be informed by the findings of the OECD review into Curriculum for Excellence, which is due to be published on 21 June.

The minister said: “I am open to considering what further reform is necessary, with the clear purpose of doing all we can to improve outcomes for children. This includes reducing variability in the outcomes children and young people achieve across the country.

“I want to look at options for reform which ensure that schools get the best possible support and challenge to enable them to improve further and to do the very best for the children in their care; to enable them to focus relentlessly on providing the highest quality of learning and teaching for our children; and to ensure that those working in education outwith schools are fully focused on doing everything they can to provide the highest quality of support.

“I want to signal my intention to start this process by considering how to reform the SQA and Education Scotland. This will be a key priority for me.”

News of the planned overhaul came at the start of the Holyrood debate on education, where the SNP government set out plans for “education recovery in the first 100 days of government and beyond.”

However, the debate was dominated both by the alternative certification model (ACM) being used to issue grades this year and by the new appeals system.

Pupils unhappy with their teacher’s assessment will be able to go directly to the SQA. However, as well as possibly getting their marks lifted, they also risk seeing grades being revised down. 

The new process also doesn’t include provision for challenges based on "exceptional individual circumstances" such as bereavement, ill-health or inadequate access to devices for remote teaching.

Green MSP Ross Greer had tabled an amendment calling on Parliament to express regret for “the additional stress and anxiety felt by students, teachers, parents and carers as a result of the 2021 alternative certification model”.The motion went on to ask the parliament to “[express] its lack of confidence in the [SQA’s] ability to fulfil its duties."

Speaking in the debate, Greer said the SQA often appeared "more concerned with protecting its own reputation."


He told MSPs: "It's with genuine regret that I bring an amendment today which expresses a lack of confidence in the SQA as an authority not in any individual, but having scrutinised their work throughout the pandemic and for years before I can come to no other view.

"We've now reached the inevitable conclusion of a process led by an organisation that doesn't trust teachers or pupils, which doesn't welcome constructive criticism, despite the recommendations of this Parliament."

Scottish Tory education spokesperson, Oliver Mundell, called for the SQA and Education Scotland to be axed rather than reformed.

He said: “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."

Speaking after the debate, Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said the reform needed to happen quickly. 

“The SNP cannot stick their head in the sand over the ongoing exams crisis. A vague commitment to a future review of the SQA is not enough and doesn’t appreciate the urgency of the crisis that is being faced today.


“The First Minister today indicated a willingness to listen about the role of personal exceptional circumstances in appeals, and she must act. If key changes and clarifications around the exams process are not made, another cohort of young people will be facing another SQA crisis. “

Greer's amendment, as well as amendments from the Tories and Labour, fell. Instead, MSPs passed the government motion praising its "ambitious" education plans by 68 votes to 32.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan welcomed the minister's announcement: “We have for some time been arguing for reform of the SQA and, in particular, the need for a stronger governance model which would see the qualifications authority more accountable to the Education system and the profession, rather than to the Scottish Government or an opaque, Government appointed, Board.

"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.”

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said: “I welcome the review announced today by the cabinet secretary and 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.

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