Scotland exams: Scottish Government was warned in January that SQA overhaul timetable was not 'realistic'
The Scottish Government was warned it needed to be more “realistic” about its timetable for scrapping and replacing the nation’s exams body more than five months before ministers announced a delay.
Education chiefs discussed a “significant risk” relating to the deadlines for overhauling the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) as far back as January, with officials insisting “clarity was needed on a number of key issues” before legislation could proceed.
And in June, three weeks before education secretary Jenny Gilruth told Parliament the process would be paused for a year, the head of the delivery board again advised that a “number of factors” still needed to be addressed, including “resourcing”, before the plans could be “fully developed”.
New bodies were proposed to replace SQA and Education Scotland following a review by Professor Ken Muir amid the fall-out from a row about the handling of assessments at the height of the pandemic, including an algorithm that downgraded the results of thousands of pupils.
They were supposed to be up-and-running by next year, but Ms Gilruth announced in June the legislation would be put on “pause for a year”.
She told MSPs the delay would allow the Government to consult teachers on proposed changes to school qualifications, made in the Hayward review, and to ensure there was an “overarching narrative” to tie together the findings of a series of recently-published studies that will shape the future of Scottish education.
Documents released to The Scotsman under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws show doubts were being raised privately about the ability to meet the targets much earlier.
Ms Gilruth ordered her own review of “all aspects of the reform programme” shortly after taking on the post in March. Shirley-Anne Somerville, her predecessor, had previously raised concerns about progress with the plans.
A minute of the programme board for January shows it was told the work was “not yet reflecting the significant and anticipated level of change that the Cabinet secretary is looking to see in terms of how each new body will operate”.
It has now emerged the board of SQA was discussing its concerns about the timetable for the work in the same month. SQA board members heard that revised timelines for the Hayward review, which was eventually published in June, presented “significant risk”.
A minute of the discussion stated: “A delivery plan must be established that is real, achievable and recognises all various dependencies to enable the establishment of the new qualifications body. The draft legislation was expected to be introduced before the parliamentary recess in May; clarity was needed on a number of key issues before then.”
A week before the SQA board discussed it in January, the chair of the new qualifications body delivery board, Michael Baxter, wrote to Clare Hicks, director of education reform at the Scottish Government.
He said: “The delivery board are keen that, moving forward, there is a realistic delivery timeline and plan that is based on a bottom-up analysis of the outputs from the other strands of reform work to generate the target operating model for the new qualifications body.”
Mr Baxter highlighted “the need for meaningful engagement with staff and trade unions”.
He said: “Related to this point was the concern raised by delivery board members about the complex and radical nature of potential change (particularly from the Hayward review) and the various consultation/engagement activities already underway, the demands these are placing on the wider system and how engagement regarding the new qualifications body fits with that landscape.”
In her response, Ms Hicks said the timescales were “challenging” and that support would be offered to ensure that “collectively we are doing all we can to accelerate progress”.
The Scotsman previously reported the education reform programme board, which has been helping to oversee the plans, discussed in April that “many of the high-level risks are related to finance”.
On June 1, three weeks before the announcement the legislation would be delayed, Mr Baxter wrote to Ms Hicks again.
He said the work was being developed in line with agreed timescales. But he added: "You will be aware, however, that there are a number of factors such as resourcing, the impacts of Hayward and Withers, and the pace of thematic reviews that have a direct bearing on the extent to which the Target Operating Model and road maps can be fully developed at this point."
Last night, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: “The education reforms are an important part of restoring confidence in the Scottish education leadership. Teachers and pupils deserve leadership that raises standards and closes the poverty-related attainment gap.
"Sufficient resources are required for these reforms as this can’t be done on the cheap."
Correspondence released under FOI has also confirmed Ms Gilruth has ordered a review of the governance structures for the reform programme.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has committed to replacing both SQA and Education Scotland. Work is underway to take forward their replacements.
“With four major reports on the future of Scottish education and skills being published in recent weeks, which includes significant proposals for reform, it is right that these are considered fully and holistically as we move forward.
"As a result, the Scottish Government is also reviewing the education reform governance structure. The highlighted minutes and letters played no role in the education secretary's decision to pause legislation until next year.
"This decision was designed to allow a bold and holistic programme of reform which, crucially, hears the views of Scotland’s teachers.”
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