These are the key changes being announced as Scotland's new Education Bill is finally published

Government presses ahead with new inspectorate and replacement for SQA

Plans to overhaul Scotland’s education agencies have been branded “little more than minor cosmetic surgery” after they were finally unveiled by ministers.

After a year-long delay, the Scottish Government published a new Education Bill on Wednesday that paves the way for the creation of ‘Qualifications Scotland’ to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), as well as a new office of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland. However, plans to scrap the Education Scotland agency have been ditched, with its role to be “refocused” instead.

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Documents released alongside the draft legislation show the total new cost of the proposals has been estimated at a maximum of £3.6 million next year, rising to close to £9m in each of the three following years, including through increased Government staffing.

Key measures revealed today include:

  • The names of Qualifications Scotland and His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland;
  • That both new bodies will be operational by autumn next year;
  • Education Scotland will no longer be replaced as part of reforms;
  • Qualifications Scotland will create new “charters” for learners and teachers;
  • Chief Inspector to have enhanced independence and deliver annual verdict on Scottish education.

The Government announced in 2021 the SQA would be scrapped, following the exam results fiasco during the pandemic, and an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report into the Curriculum for Excellence.

Professor Ken Muir was appointed to review the options and recommended the creation of three new bodies the following year - a qualifications body to take over from SQA, with Education Scotland’s functions to be split into a new national agency and an independent inspectorate of schools.

The bodies were due to be established by 2024, but Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth paused the process in June last year, because she believed the plans were “on a trajectory of travel that wasn’t in the right space”.

The Bill to create the new bodies was finally published on Wednesday, almost a year later, with both to be operational by autumn 2025. Documents also confirmed Education Scotland would no longer be replaced. It will instead be “refocused”, with its “primary purpose” being to “lead curriculum design, delivery and improvement”.

Education Scotland will still lose its inspection functions, however, through the creation of the His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland. The Bill shows SQA staff will be transferred to the the newly-established Qualifications Scotland, which will be tasked with preparing and publishing a “learner charter”, as well as a “teacher and practitioner charter”.

The latter could set out “what Qualifications Scotland will do to act on teacher and other practitioners’ concerns with qualifications or assessments”, or “how teachers and other practitioners are better supported in delivering learning and teaching for Qualifications Scotland qualifications”.

Under the proposed law, Scottish ministers will have the power to direct Qualifications Scotland. A Strategic Advisory Council is also to be created to “consider matters relating to the functions and procedure of Qualifications Scotland and the qualifications devised or awarded by it”. An accreditation committee will ensure qualifications meet requirements specified.

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Meanwhile, in terms of the new inspectorate, one of the chief inspector’s duties will be to prepare and publish an annual report on their assessment of “the performance of the Scottish education system”. The new regulator will have greater independence from Government, under the plans, which are still to be approved by the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr said: “We’ve had delay after delay on these supposed reforms, so many will be surprised to find that the SNP’s review of the qualifications authority seems to amount to little more than a name change and moving existing senior members across to the new body. 

“It is extraordinary that it has taken three years to come up with this; particularly when the Cabinet secretary needed an extra year’s postponement to undertake further review. Scottish schools have slid down the international rankings under the SNP’s mismanagement. If they are to regain their standing, teachers, pupils and parents deserve better than what many will feel is little more than minor cosmetic surgery.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie MSP said: "This looks more like tweaking than reforming Education Scotland. The real test will be whether the national agency can be for teachers, with their full engagement. This is essential to restore the position of Scottish education up the world rankings.”

Lindsay Paterson, emeritus professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said: “It is very commendable that the inspectorate is to be made independent of the bodies whose policies they are inspecting. But all this does is restore an independence that the present Scottish Government removed when they came to power in 2007.

“The original separation of the inspectorate from the curricular agency was done by Jack McConnell in 2001/02. Nevertheless, it is very welcome that there now seems to be complete cross-party agreement on the fundamental importance of a truly independent inspectorate.”

Prof Paterson added: “No matter how independent the inspectorate, or Education Scotland, that will mean nothing unless there is reliable, trustworthy and regular statistical data on the operation of the education system. That has not been available since the present Scottish Government abolished the annual Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy in 2016.

“Unless a survey of that kind is restored, none of these changes to inspection or to Education Scotland will mean anything for the evaluation of Scottish education policy. So, without better data, the changes will also mean nothing for the goal of improving Scottish education.”

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Ms Gilruth said the changes set out in the Bill would “strengthen the national education landscape to better support pupils and teachers”.

She said: “The governance processes for the new national qualifications body will ensure the knowledge and experience of pupils and teachers are central to decisions taken on qualifications and assessment. Greater independence for the new inspectorate body will see the power to set the frequency and focus for inspections moving from Scottish ministers to His Majesty’s Chief Inspector.  

“This is a significant change and will increase confidence in the independent role of inspections in assessing and identifying strengths and areas for improvement across our education system. The Scottish Government’s programme of education and skills reform will drive improvement right across the education system.

“That's why we've taken time to engage with learners, teachers and other professionals across the education and skills sector to ensure these changes meet the needs of future generations."

Gavin Yates, executive director of parents’ organisation Connect, said: “We welcome publication of the Education (Scotland) Bill. Any reform will be judged on how it better supports children and young people with their learning and qualifications.

“It is vital that parents are fully involved in the Strategic Advisory Council and in the creation and delivery of the learner’s charter. We know from our parent survey that parents want to be more involved in school inspections and school improvement.”

Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: “We welcome the commitment today from the Cabinet secretary that Qualifications Scotland will ensure that ‘the knowledge and experience of pupils and teachers are central to decisions taken on qualifications and assessment’ and note the proposed increased representation of teachers and college lecturers in the agency’s membership arrangements.

“As with all legislation, the devil is in the detail and we will take time now to consider that detail, to ensure that teachers’ voice is central to the decision-making processes.”

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She added: “It is disappointing that despite the recommendation from two independent reviews, the Scottish Government has again rejected the need for separation of the awarding and regulation functions of the new qualifications body.

“We will be looking closely at the terms of the Bill to ensure that governance arrangements are sufficiently robust to ensure transparency, equity and fairness in the discharge of these functions. The new agency can’t continue to ‘mark its own homework’.”

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson welcomed publication of the Bill. Ms Robertson, who is also Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “Today’s legislation marks an important milestone. It provides clarity that will enable us to accelerate our programme of improvements, innovations, and partnership building.”

Shirley Rogers was appointed as chair of SQA in December 2023 and, subject to parliamentary approval, will assume that same role within Qualifications Scotland. 

Ms Rogers said: “Today’s announcement marks a significant step forward on the road to a new qualifications body and provides a real catalyst for change. Our organisation is already looking to that future and progressing towards it.”

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