SNP orders overhaul of Scotland's education system following storm of criticism

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 Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville during the ministerial statement on National Qualifications 2021 at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Wednesday June 2, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit should read:  - Fraser Bremner/PA Wire
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville during the ministerial statement on National Qualifications 2021 at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Wednesday June 2, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: - Fraser Bremner/PA Wire

The SNP has ordered an overhaul of Scotland's under-fire education system after exams chiefs unveiled a qualifications appeals process that provoked a storm of criticism.

The new education secretary Shirley Anne-Somerville said the roles and functions of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) would be reviewed.

The surprise announcement came after her predecessor, John Swinney, spent years refusing demands to reform what were widely seen as underperforming quangos.

However, opponents claimed that ministers were merely “tinkering around the edges” and demanded that the SQA be axed entirely, after its running of this year’s qualifications, after normal exams were again cancelled, was heavily criticised.

Pupils have been forced to sit assessments which have been described as exams in all but name under a system open to widespread abuse.

Meanwhile, an appeals process unveiled this week has provoked outrage after it emerged pupils who take advantage of it could see marks downgraded and because there is no provision to take into account extenuating circumstances such as bereavement due to Covid-19.

Chaos last summer

It followed a scandal last summer after pupils were originally awarded grades based on an algorithm which disadvantaged poorer teenagers, under a system scrapped after a fierce backlash.

There was also confusion yesterday after Nicola Sturgeon insisted that she had “full confidence” in the SQA only for Ms Somerville to announce the planned overhaul two hours later.

Oliver Mundell, education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said: “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.”

At Holyrood, Ms Somerville said a long-awaited report into Scottish education conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development would help decade the futures of Education Scotland and the SQA.

Building pressure

There have been calls for several years to break up Education Scotland, which is responsible for both developing the curriculum and inspecting schools.

"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 what we all want, to find the very best for the children in their care,” Ms Somerville said.

“I want to signal my intention to start this process by considering how to reform our two key national education agencies, the SQA and Education Scotland.

"This will include looking at their role, their remit, the purpose of their organisations, as well as considering their function and the Government's arrangements.”

Ross Greer, the Green MSP, yesterday lodged an amendment to a Scottish Government motion in a Holyrood education debate expressing a "lack of confidence" in the SQA's ability to fulfil its duties.

He said: "Having scrutinised their work throughout the pandemic and before, I can come to no other view.

"We have now reached the inevitable conclusion of a process led by an organisation that doesn't trust teachers or pupils, that doesn't welcome constructive criticism, which has systemic issues with transparency, and which still quite clearly does not believe last year's grading algorithm was a mistake."

Mr Greer's amendment was defeated by just one vote, with 59 MSPs voting in favour but 60 SNP MSPs against it.

The scars of last year’s shambles run deep

A commentary by Alan Cochrane

We should nearly always smell a rat when politicians urge us to look at important issues in a non-partisan manner. And that advice is doubly applicable when the tribune concerned is none other than Nicola Sturgeon, a formidable debater, well-versed in all of the dark arts associated with the political world.

Thus, we were given advance knowledge that she was in some difficulty over her government’s past record, as well as its current handling, of school exams when she was challenged on the subject yesterday by Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader.

Needless to say, he was having none of this non-partisan stuff and immediately demanded to know whether her government and the Scottish Qualifications Authority were planning another year of chaos over how pupils are to be graded for exams that, for the most part, they won’t be sitting because of the Covid pandemic.

Furthermore, he outlined his specific concern that pupils face the prospect of having their results downgraded if they use the new appeals system to question the grades their teachers have given them. And he asked her if she was seriously going to defend a system which effectively meant that pupils would have to ‘gamble on their future’.

Desperate times

He quoted the Glasgow Youth Council, a body, I confess, I’ve never heard of, whose spokesman said that last year’s calamitous exams outcomes had put young people ‘through hell’ and accused the Scottish Government and SQA of being ‘in denial’ about the problems they face this time.

The First Minister was also at pains to insist that the system being adopted this year in Scotland and which Mr Ross had described as ‘indefensible’ was exactly the same as that being planned for use in England, a surprise statement, given that she normally never suggests that anything being done south of the border is worthy of copying.

Still, these are desperate times and last year’s exams fiasco at the hands of the Scottish Government is something that simply cannot be repeated.

She insisted that very few pupils have their exam marks downgraded and believed that the appeals system should only be used in exceptional circumstances because, as she added "we want to get the grades right the first time".

However, the scars of last year’s exams’ shambles run deep in Scotland, both at school and government level, and Mr Ross refused to be convinced by Ms Sturgeon’s answers. He demanded that no pupil who appeals will be downgraded and last, but by no means least, he insisted that the SQA be scrapped.

Moreover, on this last point it would appear that he’s getting his way.

Massive change

The SNP government is refusing to concede that it’s being scrapped (that would be too much of a climbdown) but in a subsequent statement Shirley Anne Somerville announced what looks very much like a root and branch reform of both Education Scotland and the SQA.

So much so that while the latter may keep its name, and that must be debatable, given its chequered history of late, it is unlikely to bear much resemblance in responsibilities and influence to the present body.

Thursday's exchanges saw perhaps the most abject admission ever from the First Minister that her government had let down (and badly let down) a generation of pupils last year whereby teacher judgement in exam marking had been replaced an algorithm approach, which, she admitted, "was fundamentally flawed".

In conclusion she said: "Of all the impacts of the pandemic that I wish I could take away, the impact on our young people is very near the top, if not at the top, of the list."

Apologies such as this don’t come often from this lady but it was entirely justified.

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