To say that confidence in the qualifications authority was shaken would be a great understatement - Euan McColm

The SQA is to face a number of reforms. Picture: Getty ImagesThe SQA is to face a number of reforms. Picture: Getty Images
The SQA is to face a number of reforms. Picture: Getty Images
There are few more sinister statements in the politicians’ lexicon than a declaration of “full confidence”.

This enthusiastic endorsement of a policy, a colleague, or an organisation is rarely sincere. If, for example, a minister hears the boss declaring their confidence in him, he would be wise to brace himself for the heave-ho.

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So, it wasn’t entirely surprising when, just a couple of hours after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed her full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced that the exam body is to face a number of reforms. There will also be an overhaul of Education Scotland, the Scottish Government agency charged with responsibility for improving standards in schools.

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Somerville’s announcement came after mounting criticism of the SQA by opposition politicians.

Not unreasonably, criticism of the organisation is sharp. Last year, after Coronavirus forced the cancellation of school exams, the authority announced that grades would be provided on the basis of work carried out in class and teacher predictions.

But after pupils received their results last August, it emerged that the SQA had moderated downwards the grades of around 75,000 pupils, most from the least wealthy backgrounds. Then education secretary John Swinney briefly defended the exam body but it soon became clear that the anger of parents, pupils and teachers was not going to subside and, a week after results were issued, it was announced that the SQA was to reverse all decision to downgrade results.

To say that confidence in the qualifications authority was shaken would be a thwocking great understatement.

Exams have not gone ahead this year and - again - teachers have been asked to step in, determining the grades those pupils sitting National and Higher exams will receive.

So far, so straightforward but in a classic of the “hold my beer” form, the SQA appeared determined to outdo itself in the losing-the-faith-of-the-public stakes this year. It was announced last week that the exam appeals process would not take account of the detriment effect of the coronavirus pandemic on pupil performance. What’s more, those who might be considering an appeal were warned that such a course of action might lead to their result being downgraded.

I’m not suggesting this was a naked attempt to discourage pupils from appealing results but it was a statement heavy with menace. Nice B you got, there, kid. Shame if it turned out to be a C.

The sudden u-turn over results last year told us that the Scottish Government wasn’t exactly on top of matters educational. Swinney seemed genuinely surprised that anyone might have had concerns about the way in which some results were downgraded and acted to overturn those decisions only when it became clear that his defence of the system was unsustainable.

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Somerville’s sudden - and, inevitably, vague - statement about reform of the SQA and Education Scotland has a similar feel about it. When the political heat got too much to bear, the Scottish Government felt the need to do something. Somerville’s announcement that change is afoot would appear to be that something.

At this stage, we know only that the role, remit and purpose of both organisations is to be “considered”. Somerville is “open” to considering what needs to be done and is ready to consider “options” for reform.

This is a all desperately vague stuff. It reeks of a desire to shut down a second year for scandal around results rather than smelling fragrantly of good ideas.

But we should, I suppose, be grateful that the Scottish Government is willing even to talk about reform. Since coming to power at Holyrood in 2007, the SNP has been more than wary of challenging orthodoxy across a range of departments. Rather than considering reform in key areas such as health and education, ministers at Holyrood have adopted a more managerial approach.

Does this point to a lack of thinking on the part of Government ministers? Does it suggest the SNP would rather not rock any boats lest they make waves that might damage their relentless campaign for independence? I think the answer is that we’ve seen a combination of both of these things.

But reform is essential if ministerial commitments are to be worth a whit.

It’s all very well making new promises about waiting times in the NHS, for example, but we should hardly be surprised when these promises are broken because of the failure of the Government to make changes to the health service.

The same logic applies to the education system. On becoming First Minister in 2014, Nicola Sturgeon said her priority was driving up standards in schools, ensuring that the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds was closed. A noble quest, for sure, but progress has been non-existent.

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Instead, standards in literacy and numeracy among pupils remain troublingly low, schools remain under-resourced, and teachers remain scapegoats for the failure of the Scottish Government to bring about the improvements it has promised.

Maybe, this time, things will be different. Perhaps we’ll see real and meaningful reform of the SQA and Education Scotland. Perhaps things will get better for pupils and teachers.

We must certainly hope this is so because it is quite clear that things cannot proceed as they are.

The SQA revealed itself as unfit for purpose last year when its handling of the results process saw kids from the poorest backgrounds unfairly penalised. Its shambolic actions this year tell us that no lessons have been learned.

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