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Exam board overhaul on cards despite Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘confidence’ in the SQA

The SQA is to be subject to reform, the Scottish Government has said.
The SQA is to be subject to reform, the Scottish Government has said.

The SQA will face a number of reforms it was announced on Thursday, just hours after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she had full confidence in the exam body.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville unveiled a package of changes during a debate at Holyrood on Thursday, following a stormy First Minister’s Questions dominated by an emerging debacle on exams in the time of covid.

The Scottish Conservatives say the reforms do not go far enough, accusing the Scottish Government of “tinkering around the edges” and called for the qualification authority to be “axed”.

Scottish Labour accused the government of “sticking their head in the sand” and the Lib Dems called for a timetable on the reforms to be published before the summer recess on June 26.

An amendment put forward by the Scottish Greens which would have said the Scottish Parliament had “no confidence” in the SQA was narrowly defeated.

Pupils feel “let down”

The Scottish Government’s announcement earlier this week that the exam appeals process would not feature a “no detriment” policy left teachers, parents and pupils angered at how the testing process was being handled for the second year in a row.

By not taking the “detrimental effect” coronavirus restrictions and the subsequent impact on teaching and learning experience, pupils said it felt as if they were being ignored.

Exams have been cancelled, with teachers now determining the grades those sitting National and Higher qualifications pupils will receive.

How to appeal grades for National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers

Further upset was caused after it was revealed exam results could be marked down following an appeal, which was deemed “unfair” by all opposition politicians.


As well as reforming the SQA and Education Scotland, newly-appointed education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced a £1 billion investment to decrease the poverty-related attainment gap, free school meals for primary children in P1-P4 and the recruitment of 3,500 teachers.

Admitting there’s a need for reform round the edges … after the First Minister told parliament the organisation had her full confidence is not very convincing.”

Oliver Mundell, Scottish Conservatives


Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said educational standards had  “at best stagnated and in many cases slipped back” under the SNP.

He said: “The failure to call out the SQA’s incompetence and to admit our qualifications agency is fundamentally broken shows a complete disregard to young people and their teachers who have been so badly let down.

“Asking pupils to gamble their grades on appeal is wrong in the context of the chaos we have seen.

“And admitting there’s a need for reform round the edges after all that we’ve seen, after the First Minister (earlier) told Parliament that the organisation had her full confidence is not very convincing.”

Oliver Mundell MSP.

He added following the debate: “Trying to tinker round the edges at reforming the SQA simply isn’t good enough. The SQA isn’t fit for purpose and must be axed.

“The SNP can’t have it both ways. Nicola Sturgeon said she had full confidence in the SQA, yet a couple of hours later her Education Secretary announces that she wants to reform the SQA after its continued failures.

“That will hardly inspire confidence among pupils, parents and teachers who the SNP have continually let down.”

Reform promise a “vague commitment”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “Thursday’s debate in Parliament highlighted the strength of feeling regarding the assessment process this year.

“The SNP cannot stick their head in the sand over the ongoing exams crisis. A vague commitment to a future review of the SQA is not enough and doesn’t appreciate the urgency of the crisis that is being faced today.

Michael Marra MSP.

“The First Minister indicated a willingness to listen about the role of personal exceptional circumstances in appeals and she must act.

“If key changes and clarifications around the exams process are not made, another cohort of young people will be facing another SQA crisis.”

“Small step in the right direction”

Scottish Lib Dem education spokeswoman Beatrice Wishart said there was a “culture of secrecy” between the SQA and the Scottish Government, referring to a lack of minutes being recorded at a meeting between former education secretary John Swinney and the body last year.

She said following the debate: “Scottish Liberal Democrats won a landmark vote in February to reform the SQA and Education Scotland and declare they aren’t fit for purpose. John Swinney tried but failed to shout us down, backed by every single SNP member.

“Thursday’s announcement is a small step in the right direction but we need more details of the reform remit and timeline before the summer recess.

Beatrice Wishart MSP.

“The frustration and anger around exams is palpable. The comments this morning from young people are completely dismaying. The top-down decision making needs to end and the culture of secrecy needs to go too.

“Teachers should be able to set the direction of the organisations. Children and young people must be involved, listened to and respected. The inspector should be independent. There has to be real reform for the recovery.”

SQA role to be considered

Announcing the government’s reform plans, Ms Somerville said the role, remit and purpose of the SQA and Education Scotland will be considered, as well as their functions and governance arrangements.

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.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville

“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.

“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.”


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