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by Andrew Learmonth
21 June 2021
Scottish Government to scrap SQA

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Scottish Government to scrap SQA

The Scottish Government is set to abolish the SQA, Education Secretary Shirley Anne-Somerville has announced. 

The announcement that the beleaguered exams body was to be scrapped came just hours after the publication of the long-awaited report into Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) from international education experts, the OECD.

They recommended the government should consider creating a "specialist stand-alone agency responsible for curriculum (and perhaps assessment)". 

The review warned that Scotland’s education system has become too “politicised” with changes being reactive rather than long-term. 

In its 139-page report, the OECD also praise Scotland's teachers but warn of “a large variety of practices between schools and classrooms” which could be “threatening the aspirations for equity in students’ experiences and outcomes”. There is criticism too over the sheer number of exams for senior phase pupils.

The review was initially commissioned by the Scottish Government to look into that senior phase of schooling but was expanded to cover all years after a vote in Holyrood. A further report into exams and grading - ordered after last year’s exams debacle - is due to be published in the autumn. 

In its report, the OECD stated: “Education is a source of pride in Scotland, which shows in the broad commitment to CfE and educational excellence for all. It has been granted great importance in the political debate to a degree that would be the envy of many a system. 

“This importance has sometimes translated into a busy system at risk of policy and institutional overload. 

“The centrality of education in the political debate, allied with the absence of an identified cycle of policy review, has resulted in a reactive and oftentimes political approach, which is not the most efficient way to address issues with CfE.”

It found a "variable picture" in the performance of the Scottish education system, noting that "while PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] results had declined between 2009 and 2015...they improved in reading and remained stable in mathematics and science between 2015 and 2018."

The report adds that "Scottish students have been among the top performers in global competences, which measure their capacity to interpret worldviews, to engage effectively in interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development", and there was "an increase to 95% in the positive destinations of those leaving schools in 2019".

On the poverty-related attainment gap, the report said there has been an “apparent improvement” for Scotland's disadvantaged pupils. According to PISA, the impact of students’ socio-economic status on performance in reading, maths and science is among the lowest across OECD countries, while there is also a greater proportion of “resilient” young people from less well-off backgrounds who perform at high levels.

As a whole, the OECD said the decade old CfE works better for learners “aged 3 to 15 years, especially in primary schools” than for those aged 15 to 18.

Senior pupils told the experts they transition to their final years in school without feeling they had consolidated the "basic knowledge" required for “deeper” learning.

The report said that older students “reported an emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, which they described as 'boring'”, and had “fewer opportunities to experience more engaging, intrinsically motivating activities related to problem solving, creativity, cooperation or communication”.

However, it added: “Interestingly, students reported that they experienced more meaningful approaches to learning in the Advanced Higher courses, which seem to better reflect the CfE vision.”

There was also criticism of the high number of different classes expected to be taken by pupils in S1-3 – up to 17 in some schools. 

The review also said the way in which grades are awarded in the senior phase should be “fully aligned to match CfE ambitions”. 

It stated: “First, Scotland needs to create more coherence and alignment within the senior phase, between the curricular vision, learning goals, pedagogy and assessment approaches. 

“It should consider reviewing the coherence of CfE enactment for learners aged 15 to 18 years, as the qualifications focus the attention on ‘traditional’ exam- and memory-based assessment, and limit the wider purpose and scope of CfE. 

“Scotland may also reflect on the range of learning activities that appear narrow, with more ‘traditional’ instructional patterns and an over-reliance on course and disciplinary knowledge coverage; as well as on the ambiguity on issues of student choice and breadth of learning in relation to the number of subjects, given that many subjects lack time for going into depth.”

Rather than exams, this could include more continuous teacher assessment and extended essays and oral and practical presentations.

Responding to the report, Education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “The last few years have accelerated a debate about the future of Curriculum for Excellence and senior phase education in particular.

“The OECD report is crystal clear - Curriculum for Excellence is the right approach for Scotland.

“In fact, despite all the criticism here at home, the OECD tells us it is viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice.

“However, 10 years on from CfE being introduced, it is right and proper that we review how it is being implemented. 

“We accept in full all 12 recommendations from the OECD.

“We will replace the SQA. We will talk to young people, parents and teachers to build a system that works in line with CfE – exactly as the OECD recommends.

“Responsibility for inspection will no longer sit with Education Scotland and we will look at what further reform of the agency’s functions is required.

“Everyone across the education system, including at the SQA and Education Scotland, has worked tirelessly this year under very challenging circumstances. They are owed a debt of gratitude."
“What comes next is a period of change. But it is change in order to improve, to achieve more and to deliver for Scotland’s pupils. Our commitment is to do exactly that and we will work with everyone and anyone willing to help to make that a reality.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “If the SNP Government has not been so bloody minded for so long pupils and teachers may not have been subjected the inadequacies of the structure and support provided by the SQA and Education Scotland.

“The exams chaos two years on the trot, the sluggish support provided through the pandemic and the declining international performance could have been avoided if the SNP government had listened.

“There has been an impenetrable bubble at the top of Scottish education for far too long. After years of campaigning by Scottish Liberal Democrats and others it looks as though that bubble may finally be set to burst.  

“On top of these long overdue reforms of the SQA and Education Scotland we need a comprehensive package of bounce back support for pupils.”

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