Education secretary accused of 'secret meetings' with SQA on eve of exam results

Scotland’s education secretary has been accused of following in the footsteps of her predecessor after it emerged no minutes exist for meetings with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

It can be revealed no minutes exist around three meetings held between Shirley-Anne Somerville and the SQA on exam results and the ongoing reform of Scotland’s education system, following an answer to a parliamentary question from the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Responding to the question from Beatrice Wishart MSP that asked for minutes connected to three meetings with the SQA, Ms Somerville claimed that due to the “informal” nature of the meetings, none were held.

However, in a previous written answer the education secretary stated one of the meetings, on June 24, was a “formal introductory meeting” with the chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has been accused of keeping meetings with the SQA 'under wraps'.

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Instead the meeting involved Ms Somerville and Ms Robertson sharing “thoughts on the reform of SQA and Education Scotland”.

The other meetings also involved the Cabinet secretary and close ally of Nicola Sturgeon discussing the results of the critical OECD review of Scottish education and the approach to exam results for 2021.

The SQA’s handling of exams in both 2020 and 2021 has been heavily criticised by opposition parties, with some calling for Ms Robertson to resign after the exams scandal last year.

Reacting to the revelations, Ms Wishart said Ms Somerville had begun her career in charge of Scotland’s education in the same manner as John Swinney ended his, labelling the lack of minutes a “stitch-up”.

Mr Swinney narrowly avoided losing a no-confidence vote while education secretary last year after facing intense pressure to quit due to the exam results scandal.

A deal with the Scottish Greens and a subsequent U-turn followed after thousands of Scottish pupils saw their grades artificially lowered by the SQA’s moderation ‘algorithm’.

The deputy first minister was later accused of a “cover-up” after claims there were no written records of meetings between the qualifications authority and Mr Swinney.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson said: “The new education secretary appears to be up to old tricks.

"Just like John Swinney, Shirley-Anne Somerville is making excuses to keep meetings with the SQA under wraps.

“Even worse, she appears to be giving Education Scotland and the SQA a lead role in reforming themselves. It has all the appearances of another Scottish Government stitch up.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats worked hard to convince Parliament that these failed organisations need reformed for the recovery.

"The risk is that we end up in a situation where nothing under the bonnet has changed. Pupils and teachers deserve better.”

The fresh revelations come as the Scottish Conservatives claimed pupils in Scotland have faced “back-to-back years of chaos” ahead of exam results being released on Tuesday morning.

Douglas Ross’s party said data obtained through Freedom of Information legislation showed pupils were more harshly marked this year than in 2020 when teacher estimates alone were used to judge grades.

Results from five local authorities show a marked decline in pass rates in several subjects when compared to 2020, with many more in line with grades from 2019.

Oliver Mundell, the Scottish Conservative’s education spokesperson, said this year’s system was “just as unfair and flawed as last year”.

He said: “This early release of results shows that pupils in councils across Scotland have been marked more harshly than in 2020.

“They have faced double the disruption of last year’s pupils, who themselves had their learning experience upturned, yet the signs show that has not been fully factored in.

“A reduction in pass rates across the board compared to 2020 is another clear indicator that ‘teacher judgement alone’ did not decide grades, as the SNP insisted.

“What happened in reality is not what young people were promised. They did sit exams and teachers have not decided grades entirely on their own.”

The Scottish Government has come under significant pressure around its implementation of the ‘alternative certification model’ for exam results this year.

The system, which saw pupils sit exams in all, but name in school, was said to be based on teacher judgement and ‘demonstrated attainment’.

However, councils have said school’s historical data would also be used to assess any grades which appeared to be outliners, leading to concerns that grades could be lowered below the grade provided by teachers.

Data analysis by the Scottish Conservatives of pre-release pass rate data from five councils – Highlands, Borders, South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and Aberdeenshire – suggests overall grades will be around 5 per cent lower than in 2020, but higher than 2019.

However, there are clear variations by subject, with all councils apart from South Ayrshire seeing pass rates in Maths drop below 2019 levels.

Mr Mundell said students faced a “postcode lottery” and the scandal showed the need for a return to traditional exams.

He said: “This early release of results strongly suggests that the SNP have used historical data to knock down grades. It looks like this year’s system is just as unfair and flawed as last year.

“Pupils seem to have faced a postcode lottery. We warned this could happen when it became clear that young people would be sitting exams under inconsistent conditions, with wide variations in difficulty from council to council and even school to school.

“These back-to-back years of chaos are the strongest argument in favour of retaining and restoring traditional Scottish exams. The deep unfairness young people have suffered cannot become an annual event.

“Before the SNP rush to abandon Scottish traditions and remove one of the last hallmarks of our unique education system, they should consider how shambolic the exams system has been over the last two years.”

The Scottish Government has been contacted for comment.

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