TWO of Scotland’s education bodies are to be reformed amid criticism over the SQA’s handling of school assessments during the pandemic.

The Scottish Government confirmed that the role, remit and purpose of both Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be examined. 

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville made the announcement in Holyrood this afternoon during a debate in the chamber on education. 

The SQA is responsible for delivering the exam diet for older and secondary pupils in Scottish schools each year, while Education Scotland’s remit is improving the quality of the country’s education system. 

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Opposition politicians have heavily criticised the SQA after last year's exam fiasco, where tens of thousands of students had to have their results upgraded after the exams body took into account the previous performance of schools when deciding on final results.

The backlash from pupils, teachers and parents forced then education secretary John Swinney to U-turn and upgrade the affected grades.

The Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS), a teaching union, welcomed the move and called for a “stronger governance model” to be put in place. NASWUT Scotland, another teaching union, also welcomed the reforms but warned it must be “more than a cosmetic procedure”. 

Somerville said that reform of both authorities is a “key priority” for her as she laid out her plans for the first 100 days of parliament - including a £1 billion investment in closing the poverty related attainment gap, recruiting 3500 extra teachers and free school lunches for P4 before rolling it out to all primary children, all year round.  

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Speaking to the chamber, Somerville 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.

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“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.”

Reacting to the announcement, 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.

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“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.”

Flanagan added that Education Scotland should be given “more independence” and taken out from under the remit of the Scottish Government. 

He said: “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.”

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Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, 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.

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“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.”

It comes as Nicola Sturgeon defended the SQA and its appeal process after Douglas Ross claimed the government was “in denial” over the impact on pupils.

There has been a growing row over the type of appeal model available to students. 

The SQA are currently pursuing a symmetrical model, which could see grades be revised up or down, while there are calls for a "no detriment" model to be introduced, where appeals can only be upgraded.