SQA and Education Scotland set to undergo reform

Teaching unions have warned that a reform of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority must not be a “cosmetic exercise”, warning that the education agencies are “too remote” from classroom practice.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville during the ministerial statement on National Qualifications 2021 at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville told Holyrood that the role, remit and purpose of both organisations will be considered, as well as their functions and governance arrangements.

Ms Somerville also said that the Scottish Government would invest over £1 billion to close the poverty related attainment gap, recruit 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants and ensure every schoolchild has access to the technology they need to support their education.

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However, unions called for reforms to be a “significant review”.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, said: "It is abundantly clear from the current mess created by the Scottish Government and the SQA over the arrangements for the awarding of this summer qualifications that reform is needed. Teachers have lost confidence in both the SQA and Education Scotland and an overhaul of systems and structures is now needed in the best interests of schools, teachers and pupils.

“These reforms must not be a cosmetic exercise. The NASUWT has already warned that a growing over-emphasis on assessment and bureaucracy is disempowering teachers, damaging their morale and undermining their ability to meet the needs of their pupils.

“The founding principal of any overhaul must be to develop a genuinely collegiate education system which recognises and values learning in its widest sense and in which teachers are empowered and supported to focus on teaching and learning.”

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “We have for some time been arguing for reform of the SQA and, in particular, the need for a stronger governance model which would see the qualifications authority more accountable to the education system and the profession, rather than to the Scottish Government or an opaque, government appointed, board. Our members have often found the SQA to be too remote from classroom practice and a significant generator of additional workload for teachers. Reform of the qualifications body should be matched by changes to the senior phase, which focus on creating time for deeper learning, breadth of study and parity between ‘academic’ and vocational’ qualifications.”

Mr Flanagan added: “With regard to Education Scotland, the key issue is to create more independence for this body and move it closer to its role of supporting schools and teachers rather than being under the direction of the Scottish Government. Education Scotland should be free to challenge government rather than being an extension of the civil service. There also needs to be a significant review of the usefulness of the current inspection process in what is meant to be an empowered education system.”

Scottish Conservatives spokesman Oliver Mundell said the agencies should be entirely scrapped, rather than reformed.

He said: “I want to return to what for me is the most important point: further decline and stagnation is not inevitable. There is no reason to believe that all is lost after 14 years of SNP failure. Reversing the decision to allow grades to be downgraded on appeal, and axing – not reforming – but axing failing education bodies like the SQA, would send a strong message that this government is in listening mode, and ready to reset and rebuild trust.”

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Ms Somerville said education investment would also include making free school lunches available to all P4 children before extending to all primary school children, expanding free early learning and childcare and developing the provision of wraparound care and after-school clubs.

She said: “I hope this programme outlines our determination to deliver improvements with pace and urgency. I am open to considering what further reform is necessary, with the clear purpose of doing all we can to improve outcomes for children. This includes reducing variability in the outcomes children and young people achieve across the country.

“I want to look at options for reform which ensure that schools get the best possible support and challenge to enable them to improve further and to do the very best for the children in their care; to enable them to focus relentlessly on providing the highest quality of learning and teaching for our children, and to ensure that those working in education outwith schools are fully focused on doing everything they can to provide the highest quality of support.”

She added: “I want to signal my intention to start this process by considering how to reform the SQA and Education Scotland. This will be a key priority for me.”

First minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier today said that she had "full confidence” in the SQA when asked by Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross during First Ministers’ Questions.

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, who raised a motion of no confidence in the SQA which was defeated by 60 votes to 59 in Holyrood this afternoon, said that there was a “tension” between Ms Sturgeon’s earlier comments and the plans for reform.

He said: “I think it is obvious to all of us that rather than see trust in the SQA improve in recent years, it has plummeted.

"I feel there's a tension between what we’ve just heard from the Cabinet Secretary, which is a need for reform and what we heard an hour or so ago from the First Minister.”

He urged her to ‘do the right thing’ over appeals on grades.

He said: “No matter how rare she says it is, it will be a risk for young people if they appeal.

"Will the First Minister do the right thing, concede she’s got this badly wrong [and] guarantee that no pupils who appeal will be downgraded?”

Ms Somerville said the reform plans would be informed by the findings of the OECD review into Curriculum for Excellence, which is due to be published on 21 June.

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said: “I welcome the review announced today by the Cabinet Secretary and SQA will play a full part in that review. Our focus remains on working with the whole education system to support our young people to get the qualifications they deserve this year.

“The successful delivery of qualifications in Scotland relies on all parts of the education system working together in partnership. It is important that our qualifications meet the needs of learners and employers, and support our economic recovery.”

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville’s motion, to recognise the difficult circumstances that children, young people, students and parents have faced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to “implement ambitious plans to support the education system during its first 100 days” was agreed.

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