SQA 'failure' on human rights duties leads to resignation demands

Scotland’s exams chief is facing fresh calls to resign from the qualifications regulator after the body was found to have regularly failed to meet its legal human rights and equalities duties.

It comes after Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) officials, following around a year-and-a-half of investigation, established the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was “not routinely assessing the impact of its policies” on human rights and equalities.

Opposition parties said the position of SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson was now “untenable” and that she “must go without delay”.

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The EHRC announced on Thursday it had reached an agreement with the SQA to implement an action plan to improve its assessment of the impact of its policies on human rights.

Chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, is facing more calls to step down from her role.Chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, is facing more calls to step down from her role.
Chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, is facing more calls to step down from her role.
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This is usually done through ‘equality impact assessments’, which are a legal requirement for public bodies to undertake to understand how a policy might impact different groups of people.

The EHRC highlighted the SQA had failed to routinely give “due regard” to the need to reduce discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and foster good relations between different groups, by not undertaking these assessments regularly.

As part of the agreement, the SQA will have to complete its outstanding impact assessments and improve its approach. The EHRC said the decision sent a “clear message” to other public bodies which were also falling short of legal requirements.

Lynn Welsh, head of legal at EHRC Scotland, said: “Considering equality implications when making decisions isn’t a ‘nice to do’ for public bodies. It is a legal requirement to ensure that public institutions make better quality, robust decisions, which work for everyone.

“By signing this agreement, we are pleased to see that the SQA has demonstrated its clear commitment to equality and to improving its practices. This will ensure that SQA continues to make necessary improvements in this area, reviewing all existing policies and ensuring that equality is at the heart of all of its practices.”

Following the announcement, the under-fire Ms Robertson immediately faced calls to resign from opposition parties.

It comes just a month after she faced similar calls following results day in August, and comes after the SQA chief held firm during 2020’s exams shambles

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Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, said the position of the SQA leadership was “untenable” and they should “resign today”.

He said: “We know that in recent years, the decisions they have taken have damaged the poorest and most disadvantaged pupils in Scotland.

“But what this undeniably confirms is that that there has been a complete lack of leadership within the organisation and from the Scottish Government. The consequences for failing Scotland’s pupils should lie with them.”

This was echoed by former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, who said it was a “serious matter” for the SQA to be “rebuked in this manner”.

The MSP said: “Teachers, pupils and staff need to have faith that their needs will be met and their rights respected. Today's announcement only reaffirms that Fiona Robertson is not the right person to take the organisation forward.”

Ross Greer, education spokesperson for the SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, demanded the entire SQA board resign over the failure.

He said: “Many of us warned the SQA for years that it was failing in its equalities duties, so this finding by the EHRC and the new agreement are certainly welcome.

"But it should not have taken an intervention by the commission for these arrangements to be put in place.

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"It’s clear that oversight of the exams agency has been totally insufficient for years. The board of management absolutely must resign after this damning report.”

Reacting to the agreement with the EHRC, Mike Baxter, director of finance and corporate services at the SQA, said the organisation was “fully committed” to improving its practices.

He said: “Although we have significantly tightened up on equality impact assessments in recent years, we recognise there is work to do to improve our processes and practice from years gone by.

"We will be taking this opportunity to work with the commission to further embed equality into our policies and processes across SQA’s activities.

"Over the next two years we will be delivering our agreed action plan across a range of work streams. We are fully committed to ensuring equality and fairness are at the heart of all we do.

“We have embarked on a large-scale programme of review of our policies and practices, and assessing and documenting the equalities impacts of those is a core element of this work.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We expect all public bodies to comply with their equality requirements and we are clear that the EHRC’s findings must be fully addressed.

“We note that SQA has published all required equality impact assessments in relation to the delivery of national qualifications in 2020 and 2021, including appeals, and welcome its action plan to further embed equality across its activities, improving its processes and practice.

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“The Scottish Government is in ongoing discussion with the SQA on this issue, and will be monitoring progress closely.”

Responding to the calls for resignations, SQA chair David Middleton said the issues “predate” the current leadership.

He said: “The SQA has tightened up on equality impact assessments in recent years to ensure compliance with our equality duties.

"There are historic gaps that predate the current leadership and these are now being addressed in partnership with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The SQA leadership is fully focused on delivering for learners.”

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