Shirley-Anne Somerville told MSPs on Tuesday that in light of a damning international report into Scotland’s education system, within six months there would be a “detailed plan” to replace the SQA and tackle the recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
She said she wanted to “move decisively to avoid unnecessary uncertainty” and revealed that Ken Muir, the former chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, would lead on the response to the report and begin his work in August.
Further, she said schools will know how next year's exams will be run by the start of the next term, while this year’s grades would not be impacted by any structural changes.
"I want to be in a position to confirm our central planning assumption for awarding qualifications in 2022 for the start of the school term in August, to give as much certainty for learners, teachers and the system as possible. This will take account of the latest state of the pandemic,” she said.
“Last week the First Minister committed to reviewing our approach to self-isolation for young people identified as contacts, and any changes here could have a significant bearing on the extent of disruption for individual learners in the next school year, and in turn our decision on whether to hold an exam diet or use an alternative model of certification.
“I know that many stakeholders support us taking the next few weeks to think through these issues and take account of the latest public health advice, before we confirm our central planning assumption at the start of the new school term.”
Ms Somerville also said she would establish “a Children and Young People’s Education Council to sit alongside the Scottish Education Council”, which would “ensure that the voices of those who are most affected by any changes in education are always heard loudly and clearly in strategic discussions”.
She added: “I want consideration of the lived educational experience of young people, current teachers, leaders and other practitioners to be fundamental to the work I do and the decisions I take as education secretary.
“It is essential that we take a rights-based approach and that we achieve genuine parity of esteem for young people’s views.”
Ms Somerville made her statement to MSPs a day after she had announced the SQA would be scrapped following an OECD report into the Scottish curriculum that raised concerns about the ability of schools to deliver on its aspirations and the demand for high-stakes exams.
However, Scottish Conservative education spokesman Oliver Mundell raised concerns that exams would be scrapped altogether in the wake of the grades fiasco of last year and the current anger over the assessments being set for senior pupils.
“The exams system has been a disaster in recent years,” he said.
“Young people know the SQA have screwed them over and it’s right that the SQA pay the price for their incompetence – but they shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat for 14 years of SNP failure.
“Historically, rigorous exams have been a real strength of Scotland's education system, a cornerstone of how we help young people to succeed in life. The problem in our exam system is the SNP’s leadership, not the foundations.
“Yet the Cabinet secretary says she is ‘very open’ to discussing options, including the wholesale scrapping of exams. No government serious about raising standards in our schools can contemplate such a radical move to break with tradition.
“It would further diminish our international standing and remove one of the last hallmarks of Scotland's world-leading system. The SNP must drop the threat of scrapping exams and focus on restoring the strengths of Scottish education, instead of dismantling them.”
Ms Somerville said the OECD was due to publish a second report at the end of August looking “specifically at qualifications”.
"I thinks it’s fair and reasonable for the government to say that we’re open to a discussion about what's in that report,” she said.
"I don’t know what’s in it at this time, but given the fact we’ve said we’ll undertake a review it would seem reasonable to say I’m open to what it leads to. I would have faith that there will be reasonable proposals and suggestions of a way forward.
"We can then discuss that with teachers and young people and together come up with something which I hope others can truly support.”
Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Michael Marra said after years of “disastrous leadership”, confidence had to be rebuilt urgently in Scotland’s education institutions.
Ms Somerville said the views of teachers, parents and pupils would be central to the reforms.
“All of the changes we make will be guided by the central principle that they improve the experiences and outcomes of children and young people in Scotland’s education system,” she said.
Newly-appointed Prof Muir said he looked forward to starting in his role.
“Education systems across the world are changing as the world in which we live changes,” he said. “I look forward to engaging widely with all stakeholders as part of my work.
“I want to understand fully their needs and listen to their suggestions on how we build on current strengths and how we might re-imagine, design and implement reforms into our education system that will truly respond to the future needs of every community and every child and young person.”