'Qualifications Scotland' and new education agency to replace SQA and Education Scotland

The SQA and Education Scotland will be scrapped and replaced with a new qualifications body and new education agency by summer 2024, the education secretary has confirmed.

It comes as Professor Ken Muir’s report on education reform in Scotland outlines a “consensual view” from pupils the past two years of exams have been an “absolute nightmare”.

The move to scrap the two agencies and replace them with a national agency for education and a new qualifications body, provisionally named ‘Qualifications Scotland’, was confirmed by Shirley-Anne Somerville after The Scotsman first revealed the plans.

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The education secretary also set out plans to set up a new independent inspectorate for Scottish education.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville. Picture: PA

Operating models of the new organisations will be developed by winter 2022, before a period of so-called ‘shadow operation’ for the new bodies ahead of them being fully operational in 2024.

At this point, the SQA and Education Scotland will cease to exist.

The new examinations body will take on the SQA’s remit for the design and delivery of Scotland’s qualifications such as Nat 5s and Highers.

It will also take on responsibility for the exam diet, including writing exams and marking, alongside certification.

Prof Muir has also recommended the examinations body should include more representation from pupils, teachers and others within the education sector.

This will be set up and operational following the 2024 exam diet.

The SQA has been under fierce criticism from pupils, teachers and opposition politicians for allegedly failing pupils.

In 2020, the exams body used a now infamous algorithm to lower the grades of thousands of pupils after exams were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, it cancelled Nat 5 exams, but committed to physical exams for Highers and Advanced Highers to take place, only to U-turn months before exams were set to begin.

On Tuesday, the SQA was forced to defend its revision support guides for the 2022 exams, which were branded “patronising” for reminding students to spell correctly and to read the question.

In his report, Prof Muir said he was “particularly concerned” about the “consensual view” expressed by learners the past two years of SQA assessments had been an “absolute nightmare”.

The education expert said this was “reflected in almost all meetings held with young people”.

On the SQA, he said many of those consulted said “altering structures alone would not, in itself, bring about the changes needed”, adding “cultural and mindset changes are as important, if not more so, than structural change”.

His report criticised the “rotation of top administrative and executive positions in Scotland’s education system among a small number of individuals”, adding that this “limits creative thinking and constructive challenge within top decision-making processes”.

However, under questioning from MSPs on whether the leadership of both the SQA and Education Scotland would remain in leadership roles of the new bodies, the education secretary was equivocal.

She said the leadership of both organisations would remain “critical” adding that the design of the future leadership structure is a “priority” and would be “appropriately staffed”.

In her statement, Ms Somerville said the calls for cultural, as well as structural, change within Scotland’s education system from Prof Muir was a “challenging” message and required reform.

She said: “A clear and unambiguous learner focus must therefore be a feature of the way that we take this work forward.””

Proposing a single national education agency, Prof Muir said policy advice to ministers on education must take place “much closer” to the teaching profession than it does right now.

His report recommends this national education agency, which will replace Education Scotland, should take on aspects of its predecessor’s remit and the SQA’s accreditation function, as well as have the main function of providing “responsive, bespoke support and professional learning” across Scotland.

Confirming its creation, Ms Somerville said it would “have a clear set of functions” and be “teacher-facing, visible and valued by the profession it serves”.

However, the Scottish Government is understood to have said it will not transfer current education policy responsibilities to the new agency, despite a central recommendation for it being the creation of a “forum for ongoing and proactive discussion” around policy and to gather views to “develop and enhance key policies”.

Ms Somerville also confirmed the creation of a new education inspectorate body that will evaluate Scotland’s education system and report annually on the performance of Scottish education.

The Scottish Government is understood to be committed to taking forward the programme for reform immediately following the report.

However, the Scottish Government plans were ridiculed by opposition parties, with the Scottish Conservatives labelling them “depressing and hollow”.

Oliver Mundell, the party’s education spokesperson, accused the SNP of having “fritted away” the chance to reform Scotland’s education system and having only committed to “cosmetic changes”.

He said: “After 15 years of neglect on their watch, Scotland’s education system requires a major overhaul, not a rebranding of the SQA and Education Scotland masquerading as serious change.

"The public are not going to be fooled of this spin when they recognise the magnitude of the problems in education that this SNP Government have created and exacerbated.”

Michael Marra, education spokesperson for Scottish Labour, said the statement should have begun with an apology, criticising the SNP for a lack of vision.

He said: “Given the level of expectation and engagement with this report, it’s unfathomable that the Government would do anything, but accept in full the recommendations.

"This cannot be a rebrand of the organisation as it appears to be.

"As for the sorrowful lack of personal vision or ideas from this Government, this new crowdsourced vision for education joins the swollen ranks of reviews and working groups doomed to produce nothing.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said “structural reform is not enough”, while the Scottish Greens, who are in coalition with the SNP, welcomed the reforms and said they included aspects of their manifesto demands.

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