SQA chief told to cut links with Saudi regime which 'kills children'

The new chief executive of Scotland's examination body was today urged to cut organisational links to the Saudi government as she faced a barrage of hostile questions from MSPs.
Ross Greer MSP has called for the SQA to cut its organisational links with the Saudi Arabian government.Ross Greer MSP has called for the SQA to cut its organisational links with the Saudi Arabian government.
Ross Greer MSP has called for the SQA to cut its organisational links with the Saudi Arabian government.

Fiona Robertson, the recently-appointed head of the Scottish Qualifications Agency, came under fire from MSPs for her organisation's work in Saudi Arabia - and for the cost to taxpayers of "junkets" by her senior staff on international trips.

In her first appearance before Holyrood's education committee, Ms Robertson faced a serious of angry questions from Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer on the SQA's "support" to the Saudi government and military.

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She also faced intense questioning over the spending of tens of thousands of pounds on SQA trips abroad, as well as the future of the National 4 exam and multi-level teaching in classrooms.

Mr Greer demanded the exam body ends its links with a private company, which offers SQA training to Saudi government employees after Ms Robertson, and her colleague John McMorris, revealed no assessment had been made of how SQA training could be used.

Reeling off a litany of Saudi atrocities in Yemen, included targeted attacks on school buses, hospitals and funerals which have killed children, he said: “The SQA operates in countries that have frankly indisputably poor human rights records.

"You've been doing this for years - you're doing it for Ministry of Defence and they're killing children. You're an education authority of the Scottish Government, why have you not re-evaluated your relationship? It's completely inadequate the SQA has not.

"I expect a written explanation to committee on what you intend to do about that, as it doesn't appear you conduct the appropriate human rights checks and that's not acceptable for a government body."

He said that the SQA's IT training courses, run through a private company TETEC, served the Saudi defence ministry with "more than 44,000 Saudi government employees understood to have been through one of the SQA courses."

But that was refuted by Mr McMorris, director of business development, who said: "To date there's been no certifications of that programme, there's been registrations, two thirds of which are female, but quality assessment processes are still reviewing the assessment criteria of the students, so no one has been certificated to date," he said, admitting no assessment had been made of the use to which the training would be put.

Mr Greer responded: "You're providing training for employees of a government, that's a line of responsibility to yourselves."

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Since the bombing of Yemen began in 2015, the SQA’s international head, Alistair Shaw, has visited the capital, Riyadh, with his officials 13 times. The former chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, also flew to Riyadh in 2014-15.

However Ms Robertson defended the SQA Saudi deal, saying the TETEC centre had gone through the "same process and procedures" as any Scottish SQA centre would, and added: "We also take into consideration any FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] guidelines relating to international trade across different jurisdictions as well.

"We'd be happy to provide further information to the committee, but it's important to highlight the processes and procedures we take forward are very much in line with other public bodies and we do as much due diligence as possible.

"This is a private provider and there are obviously constraints as to what we can do to provide further oversight.

"Culture and educational exchanges are a force for good, there's something here about Scottish education being that force for good. I absolutely acknowledge the committee's concerns about human rights issues and we share those concerns. We work to promote the excellence of Scottish education overseas. The SQA has been doing work overseas for 30 years. The work is supported by the strategic goals agreed by Scottish Government."

Mr McMorris, added: "We work within the Scottish Government policy in protecting human rights internationally and as a part of that, our international engagement is seen as an opportunity through educational exchange to share our experience and spread the promotion for the respect for human rights and values. A lot of human rights considerations are embedded in our systems.

"Anytime a centre comes forward to be an approved SQA centre we have specific criteria looking for equal opportunities policies, we insist on documented procedures to ensure candidates have equal access to assessment and no individual can be discriminated against."

In Saudi Arabia, he said, they offered a range of "entry level IT qualifications" with the aim of increasing female participation in the labour market and helping with youth employment.

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He said the TETEC centre was used by "many awarding bodies in the UK" and that the customer base is "various ministries and private organisations".

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour education spokesperson, raised the issue of "junkets" by SQA staff, after reports that senior staff had spent thousands on business class travel and luxury hotels while on business abroad.

Ms Robertson said: We employ a number of people focused on our international work and as part of that they undertake overseas travel. It's part of their job and is done within the existing travel and subsistence guidance, of which there is a review ongoing. But all budgets and spending has been approved in the normal way and that expenditure has been audited in the normal way."

She said that the income generated from international work - £2.4m in the last financial year - paid "for that function" and "brings in some additional money into the SQA which offsets our reliance on the public purse."

Asked if the profit would be greater, and the dependence on public monies further reduced if international work was undertaken "more economically", she said: "Costs are relevant to net income absolutely. However international travel has been undertaken within guidelines."

Mr Gray later added that Ms Robertson needed to "clamp down quickly" on "senior staff’s junketing". He said: "The SQA should concentrate on its job of running Scotland’s exam system."

In a statement issued this evening, an SQA spokesperson said: "“SQA is not training government officials in Saudi Arabia. We do not recognise the 44,000 figure used in the press release."TETEC is a privately-owned training provider in Saudi Arabia. It works with a number of international awarding bodies including SQA. TETEC is accredited by SQA, to Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Scottish Government guidance, to deliver a short, customised entry-level IT skills course, which helps to increase youth and female economic mobility. So far, the private training provider has not put forward one single candidate for certification. “SQA strongly opposes all forms of human rights abuse and unlawful discrimination. We strongly support equal opportunities in employment, education and training.“Education is a positive force for change in influencing wider society, as well as the lives and economic mobility of learners. Our international activity promotes Scottish values."