Exams body chief claims SQA has not failed despite ministers plans to scrap agency

The chief of Scotland’s soon-to-be-scrapped examinations body has rejected suggestions the organisation has failed, despite the plans to replace it.

Fiona Robertson, the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, told MSPs she did not believe the organisation she led had failed.

The education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, announced in March this year that both Education Scotland and the SQA will be scrapped and replaced by summer 2024.

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It followed a damning conclusion in a Scottish Government commissioned review, conducted by Professor Ken Muir, that there was a “consensual view” from pupils that the past two years of exams have been an “absolute nightmare”.

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Operating models of the new organisations should 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.

The announcement followed a string of scandals involving the SQA, including the infamous ‘algorithm’ which saw thousands of grades being downgraded to fit historic performance.

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The body also faced significant criticism around its return to exams this year, and ‘exams by stealth’ last year.

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, said it was the conclusion of the Scottish Government that the SQA had “failed”, adding “they wouldn’t be scrapping the organisation otherwise”.

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Fiona Robertson, Chief Executive of SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) appeared in front of MSPs.

He said: “When I say that the organisation has failed, that is the conclusion of the ministers and you shake your head again at that, but the organisation is being closed and replaced for the decisions that it took.”

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Ms Robertson rejected the characterisation.

"I don’t accept that is what the cabinet secretary has said in her rationale for change.”

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The MSP also looked for clarification for why several members of the SQA management team sit on the delivery board for the reform of the body, and questioned whether it would be a rebrand rather than a true replacement.

He said: “It strikes me that if we are looking at a system that is driven by management of the existing organisation, and we’re being told by some of the organisations that they are not even being scrapped, can we really have faith that this is a reform process that is based in the needs of the people.

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"Should it not be external voices being heard, should it not be people represented here who are the users in the process to actually make these decisions, rather than the six SQA managers?”

Ms Robertson rejected the suggestion the SQA had failed.

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She said: “My job and our job is to make sure that we are contributing to that work, drawing on the skills and experience of SQA staff.

"You would expect in any public sector reform program that there is engagement with those who are currently delivering those functions.”

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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.

Despite Education Scotland staff suggesting they believe the agency will not be scrapped, Ms Robertson said she expects there to be a brand new qualifications authority in place after results in 2024.

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Such a body will take on the SQA’s remit for the design and delivery of Scotland’s qualifications such as Nat 5s and Highers, alongside responsibility for certification and writing and marking exams.

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