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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 9, 2022


Education Reform

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the Scottish Government’s response to the report by the independent adviser on education reform. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am very grateful to you and to the Parliamentary Bureau for agreeing to my request to bring forward the statement that I had planned to deliver tomorrow. That has become necessary due to an administrative error in which information on the content of the statement and the accompanying publications was inadvertently shared outside the Scottish Government. I felt that it was therefore important to bring my statement forward in order to attempt to mitigate the risk of the information being shared publicly and to ensure that staff in the affected organisations were briefed appropriately.

On 22 June 2021, I gave a statement to Parliament on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report on Scotland’s curriculum for excellence. At that time, I announced that we would replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority, consider forming a new curriculum and assessment agency, remove the inspection function from Education Scotland and consider further reform to that body. I also announced Professor Ken Muir’s appointment as an independent adviser on education reform, with a remit focused on providing advice on the implementation of the OECD’s recommendations for structural and functional change of the SQA and Education Scotland.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament further, having received Professor Muir’s report. When I asked Professor Muir to undertake the work, I encouraged him to recommend the changes that are needed to deliver an improved education experience for children and young people. I put on record my sincere thanks to him for providing me with a thorough, detailed and challenging report.

I am also very grateful to all those who took part in Professor Muir’s engagements and consultation. The response to that exercise has been significant, and I am heartened by our collective commitment to education and by the strength of support for change.

I thank the staff, unions and management of the SQA and Education Scotland for their constructive engagement. Staff at all levels have continued to undertake critical work, despite experiencing personal uncertainty about the future roles of their organisations. I place on record my gratitude for their professionalism and commitment. In the period ahead, it will be vital that staff in both organisations are supported to allow them to focus on their continuing crucial work.

The case for reform was supported by the OECD’s report and has been further strengthened by Professor Muir’s recommendations. As Professor Muir says in his introduction, his recommendations

“place children, young people and those teachers and practitioners who support their learning more firmly at the heart of the education system.”

With that in mind, the Scottish Government welcomes Professor Muir’s report and broadly accepts his recommendations.

Today, I can confirm that the SQA will be replaced and that the Scottish Government will legislate for the creation of a new non-departmental public body that will have responsibility for the development and awarding of qualifications. Crucially, that body will reflect the culture and values that we want to be embedded throughout our education and skills system—a system that puts learners at the centre, that supports our teachers and practitioners and which instils integrity, fairness and accountability throughout their approach to recognising achievements in education.

I agree with Professor Muir that the accreditation and regulation function should be independent of the awarding body. However, careful consideration is required of where those functions should sit, particularly in relation to ensuring that the independence of the regulatory functions is secured. Further focused work on that aspect, drawing on the knowledge and experience that exist in the SQA, will take place over the next few months.

It is often said that nothing is more important in schools than the quality of teaching and school leadership. Providing the best possible support for those who work with learners, no matter the setting, is therefore crucial. I can confirm that we will establish a new agency that will build on the expertise in Education Scotland and will provide excellent leadership and support for the curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching, while also having a lead role in relation to curriculum for excellence. The OECD challenged us to consider the creation of a curriculum and assessment agency. In understanding the close link to learning and teaching, we believe that all those functions should be drawn together in one national agency.

I agree with Professor Muir’s recommendation that a distinct function of the new agency should be responsive delivery that more consistently meets the needs of teachers and practitioners at local and regional levels. The agency will therefore have a clear set of functions. It will be teacher facing, visible and valued by the profession that it serves. I want teachers to feel that this is their agency and that it responds to their needs and, therefore, to the needs of learners.

An independent inspectorate will play a crucial role in Scottish education by helping to enhance the quality of teaching, learning and leadership while also providing an objective assessment of performance. The Scottish Government intends to legislate to ensure the independence of the new inspectorate.

A key early task is the establishment of a new model of inspection that is supportive and inclusive, and is able to evaluate the performance of the system itself, nationally and locally. It will be important that the inspectorate builds relationships through consultation and engagement on new approaches to inspection.

I also welcome Professor Muir’s recommendation on the creation of a shared framework for inspection of early learning and childcare. The proposal is a step forward. I am, however, conscious of the challenges that the ELC sector has raised regarding the dual inspection regime, so I will consider the recommendation further in the context of the national care service reforms, as we take forward work on the new inspection body. I will come forward with specific proposals to consult the ELC sector before the summer. That consultation will take place alongside the important work of establishing the independent education inspectorate, and will not delay that process.

My announcements today are significant and are designed to strengthen the education landscape and to provide clarity and coherence. However, if we are to place learners at the centre of our education system, we must also reform the culture of the bodies and, indeed, the system itself. Professor Muir’s message in that respect is challenging, so we must all do more.

Our renewed system must reflect the culture and values that we want to see being embedded throughout it. It must be a system that puts learners at the centre and provides excellent support for our teachers and practitioners, but it must also be a system in which there is clear accountability. That means democratic and organisational accountability, but it also means accountability to learners, who have a right to expect the highest-quality learning and teaching and a right to be given the best chance of success.

A clear and unambiguous learner focus must therefore be a feature of the way in which we take the work forward. Professor Muir’s report contains some hard messages from young people about their experiences of education. One way to address that is to ensure that their voices are heard more clearly and more often.

We need a culture and mindset that place the needs of individual learners and their learning at the centre of decision making—of all actions and all behaviours. We also need a culture and mindset that ensure that those who work with learners can have their professional needs readily supported.

A commitment to openness and to meeting the needs of learners and those who work with them must also be clear in the leadership of our system.

The new bodies must also be future proofed in their design. We must, of course, learn from the experience of the pandemic and we must be ready to evolve further, including because of the work on qualifications and assessment that Professor Louise Hayward is leading.

I understand that the past two years have been hard and that school staff are weary, but we have learned from the pandemic and the OECD reports that there is impetus for change. Many of the people whom Professor Muir engaged with also felt that this is a good time to look closely at the future of education in Scotland. We will therefore lead a national discussion on a vision for the future of Scottish education, and we will appoint an independent facilitator to assist with that work. I am committed to working with everyone in education to accelerate the efforts to achieve excellence and equity for Scotland’s children and young people, and I will seek to engage as many interests as possible as we proceed with those efforts.

I hope that we can work together—not on a Scottish Government vision for education, but on a vision for education that we share, which can build on existing commitments including on the OECD recommendations, on the national improvement framework, on the Scottish attainment challenge and on empowerment. It can build on work that is already being undertaken across tertiary, employer and wider skills and learning landscapes, as well as on the important principles that are developed in Professor Muir’s report.

Post-pandemic, I hope that we all share a determination to intensify the efforts to close the poverty-related attainment gap and to tackle variation in the outcomes that are achieved by children in different parts of the country.

Today, I have announced the creation of three new education bodies that will be underpinned by new values and new governance. I have also announced my intention to work in partnership to build a new vision for Scottish education. Those changes are significant and are designed to improve outcomes and to build trust in the Scottish education system. Our system has much to be proud of, but it needs to evolve and improve.

At the same time, I fully appreciate that the decisions that I have announced today will have a direct impact on the staff of the SQA and Education Scotland. I want to thank them for their continued willingness to deliver in a time of change, and I emphasise my assurance that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of reform. I am fully committed to continuous and meaningful engagement with all those who will be affected by the reform, and I will establish a forum including the Scottish Government, the SQA, Education Scotland and the trade unions to ensure that all staff are involved throughout the process.

Some changes will take time, but I want to move through the agenda at pace and to have operating models for new bodies in place by the end of this year. I will discuss the next steps with a wide range of stakeholders, as well as with the Scottish education council and the international council of education advisers.

The work of the OECD, Professor Muir and Professor Hayward provides us with an opportunity to renew key parts of our education system, to reimagine the culture of the system and to agree a new vision for Scottish education in the post-pandemic era. Today, I have set out the key decisions to be made in our reform journey. I now look forward to working with learners, parents, teaching and support staff, the staff of the agencies, our partners and, of course, members across the chamber on how our recommendations can be taken forward.

The Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to ask a question could press their request-to-speak button now.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I start—along with just about everyone in Scotland—by thanking the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of her statement, or perhaps I should say “press summary”. Regardless of whether members read its contents online or heard about them in this chamber, they are just as depressing and hollow.

The Scottish National Party has frittered away another opportunity to fix our broken education system. After 15 years of neglect on its watch, Scotland’s education system requires a major overhaul, not a rebranding of the SQA and Education Scotland masquerading as serious change. The public will not be fooled by the spin when they recognise the magnitude of the problems in education that the SNP Government has created and exacerbated.

Pupils, teachers and parents were promised a new strategy, but it seems that the SNP is willing to commit to only cosmetic changes, rather than addressing the failures at the heart of our education system. The idea that the SQA will continue to play a role until 2024 and will have the chance to shape and influence its replacement is outrageous and speaks to the overconfidence that ministers continue to have in their own agencies. Where is the leadership and vision? Where is the ambition for current and future generations of Scots? How on earth can we trust the same SNP Government that has diminished Scottish education to restore it, when it has failed time and again to rise to the scale of the challenge? Do our young people not deserve more than this?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have broadly accepted Professor Muir’s recommendations. Mr Mundell might quite happily attack the Government at will but, to be honest, he does a disservice to Professor Muir and his work, including the consultation, which he spent an exceptionally great deal of time undertaking. It is because of that work that we have committed to taking forward the recommendations.

It is important that we involve the agencies’ staff. I appreciate that people will have different views on both agencies and on decisions that have been taken in the past, but there are staff who work for the agencies who are exceptionally knowledgeable and expert in their areas of work. Of course the staff should play a part in having a view on what happens with the functions that we are talking about, as should external stakeholders, trade unions, parents and young people.

I hope that everyone agrees that the functions that the organisations carry out are all required, and that we need those functions in the future. Therefore, the question is about the structure, culture and governance that underpin those functions. I have spoken about the culture and values, and my commitment to new governance, and I want to work with the staff, external stakeholders and, as I have said, members across the chamber to see what we can now do to ensure that the culture and values are embedded in our education system, with learners right at the centre.

If members are saying that functions are organised incorrectly, I am more than happy to hear the details about how we should do that differently. If they are not, and what they are talking about is how we should move forward, I would genuinely welcome the opportunity to work together—even with Mr Mundell—to achieve the type of system that I have spoken about today, with new governance and values underpinning the commitment in the agencies.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Twitter, The Scotsman, the Scottish Youth Parliament and so many more for advance sight of the report. The statement should have started with an apology for why we have arrived at this point, and a little bit of humility about the mess that the Government has created.

We should place on record our thanks to the staff of the SQA and Education Scotland, who have used their commitment and expertise to tirelessly work through the pandemic. Like Scotland’s young people, they have been shamefully let down by the leadership of their organisations and the ministers of this Government.

Given the level of expectation about and engagement with the report, it is unfathomable that the Government would do anything but accept in full the recommendations that it sets out. The shambles this week alone makes it clear that the SQA cannot possibly be left to preside over another generation of senior-phase pupils, when the cabinet secretary has made it clear today that the SQA is not fit for purpose. Simply put, this cannot be a rebrand of the organisation, as it appears to be.

As for the historical lack of personal vision and ideas from the Government, the new crowd-sourced vision for education joins the swollen ranks of reviews and working groups doomed to produce nothing.

I have three questions for the cabinet secretary. Will she ensure that the current management—not the staff—at the SQA are gone this week and will have no role in the new organisation? Will she work with members on these benches, as we have asked for in the past, to move more quickly on the process of reform, which is too often delayed? Will she move to immediately establish an independent inspectorate for schools as a precursor to the full inspectorate, given the collapse in school inspections in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I can absolutely say that this is not a rebranding exercise. I will not go over the reasons for that, except to point to the importance of the governance that we are putting in place. I am sorry about the cynical nature of the member’s views on crowd-sourcing opinions—I would hope that that is consultation and working together. We are always told to ensure that the Scottish Government does not say what the vision is for education but works with other people to develop that vision. That came through strongly in the Muir consultation, and it is something that I hear loud and clear from stakeholders.

I appreciate that people have concerns about the current management in the SQA, and they have made those concerns loud and clear. However, I have to say, with the greatest respect, that to say, “Sack the management,” seven weeks before exams start is to ask the Government to play a part that would not be responsible. With seven weeks to go, it is deeply irresponsible to ask us to just take the head away from the organisation. Of course, the SQA, including its leadership as well as its staff, will continue to work exceptionally hard to deliver the exam diet in a few weeks’ time.

I have spoken about my desire to move quickly and to see what can be done to expedite the timetables. I point out that, if issues are to be dealt with through legislation, that takes time.

Again, I think that it is right that I lay the foundations for the new agencies today, but a great deal of the detail has yet to be agreed. Over the past few weeks, I have been asked by trade unions not to make too many detailed announcements today but to take this as a starting point for work with them. That is what I have been asked to do, and that is what I have done.

Next, of course, is the work on the operating models and the consultation in that regard. A bill rightly takes time to go through this Parliament and—again—it would not be responsible to make changes to the SQA just before an exam diet.

If Opposition members do not like the timetable that I am laying out, I am genuinely interested in what they think I should cut. Should I cut the consultation with external stakeholders? Should I cut the parliamentary scrutiny?

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Although reform is necessary, this is an uncertain time for the staff who are directly involved. We must take their anxieties seriously. What assurance can the cabinet secretary give to staff at Education Scotland and the SQA that the Scottish Government will ensure job security, champion the principles of fair work and undertake meaningful engagement with staff throughout the reform process?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I said in my statement that one of my major concerns as we go through this process is the impact on staff and the uncertainty that any change and reform process brings. In December, I made a commitment that, through the reform process, we would look at staff terms and conditions and ensure that they were protected. As I said in my statement, there will be no compulsory redundancies because of the reform process—that absolutely remains the case.

I commend the staff for continuing to work during these difficult and uncertain times. I understand that an information note has been shared with staff today that provides background on the process so far and information on the next steps and what they mean for staff. I give my personal commitment, and the commitment of my officials, that we will work closely with staff and—this is important—with their trade union representatives, as we go through the process, so that we pay due respect to staff and their expertise and consider how best to utilise that expertise during the process.

Before we come to the next question, I say to members that I would be grateful if questions and responses were short and succinct, as many members want to get in.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

It was reported this morning that the SQA and Education Scotland will be scrapped and replaced with a new qualifications body and agency by summer 2024. How can the Scottish Government guarantee a smooth transition to a new qualifications body, to ensure that young people and teachers do not have to endure yet more of the chaos in the examinations diet that we have experienced in recent years? Furthermore, does the cabinet secretary think that it is reasonable that young people have to wait for yet another Government report before they find out what changes will be made to the education system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have laid out the foundations for the new agencies today, as I said. I make the point that I have spoken to trade unions in the past weeks and they have made clear their desire for this not to be a fait accompli from Government and for us to continue to work with them on the details. Again, I think that that is the right way to make policy; we should listen to the professional associations and to young people, and that is what I am determined to do.

The member makes an important point about the transition process. The staff of both organisations, including the leadership, have incredibly important work to do and need to be supported during the transition, so that we can ensure that young people and staff are also supported during that process.

That is why we are very quickly looking at the operational models and at what can be done in relation to shadow organisations and so on, to ensure that we move seamlessly. I will be able to report back to the Parliament on that in due course, once we have discussed the issue with the trade unions and stakeholders, which is important.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome Professor Muir’s recognition that the education system must reflect the principles of subsidiarity and empower teachers and practitioners. How will those principles be assured in the new institutional landscape?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I mentioned in my statement, the new agency that will replace Education Scotland needs to look and feel like, and be, the teachers’ agency. By default, it will be an agency of Government, but I want to ensure that, through its governance structure and the structures that are being set up around it, teachers will feel that it will be the teachers’ agency. That is very important to me, and it is part of our empowerment agenda.

As I have said a number of times, there is a great deal of work still to do on the structures and the governance. I am determined to work with teachers and their trade unions to ensure that we embed in those structures the type of culture that I have spoken about, and—importantly—that we look at how the governance can work to ensure that we deliver on that aim.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

A young person who started high school at the start of the pandemic will have left before any change that is being discussed today will be seen. The cabinet secretary has spoken about having an operational model by the end of this year and the Scottish Government has said that it will broadly accept most of the recommendations. Can we have a Government debate in which we can listen to an explanation of why there is only broad acceptance? When will a draft bill to create the executive non-departmental public body be published? When will a bill to guarantee the independence of the inspectorate be published?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I certainly hope that that can be done as expeditiously as possible, but much of it will depend on the consultation that we are about to undertake in order to ensure that we get the detail right.

To take one example, there are a number of views in the chamber, never mind outside it, on the governance structures of the SQA and the new body that will replace Education Scotland. For example, what are the roles of teachers and young people within those structures?

We also need to look at some of the reports that we have had in the past to see where we can learn from previous experience of governance matters in both the SQA and Education Scotland. I am determined—I have given one example—to work with unions and stakeholders on that.

Again, I point to the timetable. I would like to make the timetable as short as possible, but we need to consult and get a bill through the Parliament and that unfortunately takes time, although it is quite right that it does. If members have suggestions about how the process could be expedited, I would be happy to discuss them. Nevertheless, the consultation is exceptionally important, as is the parliamentary scrutiny that will happen as we discuss some of the different options that we have—for example, on governance.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The statement outlined the significant organisational change that will happen over the next couple of years. However, young people who are sitting exams in just a few weeks’ time need certainty and stability. Can the cabinet secretary assure those pupils and students in schools across Scotland who are sitting exams this year that the exam diet remains on track and that they will be unaffected by the reform process that is under way?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is very important that I reassure learners—and I can—that the reform process that is under way will not impact on the exam diet that is due to start very soon. I know that both senior leadership and staff in the SQA are determined to take the process forward in a professional manner to ensure that learners can take part in a smooth process, and I wish those learners every success when they do so.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The SNP Government wasted years dragging its feet on breaking up Education Scotland and scrapping the SQA. Meanwhile, Scottish education slipped down the international rankings. Reform is urgent, yet everyone will need to wait for another two years before we get the change for which we have been crying out. Can the minister guarantee that the organisations will have new leadership, or will it be the same top people with different roles? Structural reform is not enough. Will the new education agency focus on producing top-down policy direction or on acting as a facilitator to enable teachers to discuss and develop the curriculum?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I mentioned a number of times in my statement my absolute desire for the agency not to be seen to be, nor to be, top down but to be absolutely responsive to the needs of teachers, which is an important and significant change that we can make. I know that Education Scotland has been working on that, but this is an opportunity to take it to the next level.

The leadership of both organisations will remain critical, as the organisations have vital roles in the education system. The design of an appropriate leadership structure to support delivery of the agreed functions of the new agencies is a priority to be decided and, once that is agreed by the Scottish ministers, we will ensure that the new bodies are appropriately staffed and led and that processes around recruitment, where appropriate, are carried out.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I understand that the OECD recommended that we should explore assigning curriculum and assessment to a specialist standalone agency. Can the cabinet secretary explain why she has adopted that approach and how it will be different from what we have now?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Professor Muir set out in his report that, in his opinion, a specialist body that focuses just on curriculum and assessment would not be enough to deliver the improved outcomes that he wishes to see for learners, and the Government agrees. He has proposed a single agency with a broader remit and we are happy to take up that recommendation and establish that new agency for Scottish education. The work that Professor Muir has done on the consultation to make sure that we can bring roles and responsibilities together will help with one of the challenges that the OECD rightly pointed out around some confusion in relation to roles in Scottish education and therefore leadership in Scottish education. What Professor Muir has recommended on the new body will tackle some of the challenges that the OECD pointed out.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

One of the themes in the report is that pupils, parents, carers and particularly teachers do not feel respected or trusted by the SQA and Education Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary therefore agree that they should all be directly involved in the permanent governance structures of the new agencies, not just in the initial set-up phase and not just through arms-length advisory arrangements?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said earlier, one of the areas where there is a variety of views is how we can best bring pupils and teachers into this and where that fits into the process. I am absolutely determined that that should be a permanent feature, and certainly not just during the consultation or the set-up process, so it is a matter of how that is done, rather than whether it should be done. We need to work through the details of that to ensure that structures for good governance are in place. Members across the chamber, including Mr Greer, I am sure, will have passionate opinions on the issue and I am more than happy to work with any member who has a view on the governance structures that the new organisations should have.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Like my colleague Ross Greer, I am keen to know how young people can be central to future decision making in the education system. How will the Scottish Government ensure that learners are central to not just this reform but, in the years to come, the decision making of the institutions that have been outlined today?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I responded to much of that in my answer to Ross Greer, so I will not repeat that, but it is very important that we have that directional change that Professor Muir discussed in his report in relation to putting learners at the centre of everything that we do. The challenge for the Government and the Parliament as the bill on the agencies progresses is how we turn it into reality and how we can embed that in a governance structure to ensure that we can use governance as a way of developing that culture and mindset.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Another week, another educational omnishambles from this clapped-out Government. Appendix B of the report is a revelation. If anyone has any doubt about the failure of 15 years of SNP government, read the key findings of the public consultation. Among those conclusions and inputs, fears were expressed that the proposed reforms could end up consisting of system changes that simply rebrand the current system rather than provide any meaningful cultural change. The enhanced mission of the new independent inspectorate body will need resources, so will the cabinet secretary ensure that those resources are made available? This cannot be yet another project that is announced with no money set aside to make it happen.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have made it very clear that this is not a rebranding exercise. This concerns three new agencies with new culture and values and new governance structures to support that new culture and its values. I am determined to work with others to ensure that we can embed that, where necessary, in legislation.

The inspectorate, as it exists at the moment, is resourced. We will therefore ensure that the new inspectorate body, when it is set up, is fully resourced to carry out the functions that it is required to fulfil by the statute that will be passed by the Parliament.

That concludes the ministerial statement on the Scottish Government’s response to the report by the independent adviser on education reform.