School exams face disruption as strike action is threatened in a dispute over a “failure” to consult with staff at the national qualifications agency about ministers’ plans to scrap it. 

The Unite union issued the warning while confirming there will be a consultative ballot on strike action at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). It claims that, after four months, the workforce has been “locked out” of discussions on their future and the replacement body.

The SQA said any threat of industrial action “is disappointing and not in the interests of learners”.

The Government said in June the changes would be made in response to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which backed the curriculum as a whole but said there was too much focus on exams in the later years of schooling.

The pandemic also brought particular focus on the school qualifications system, with criticism about how grades were decided after formal exams were cancelled two years running due to Covid-19.

In response to this, the Government announced the SQA was to be broken up and replaced. Standards body Education Scotland is also set for a shake-up, with a new, independent system for school inspections to be set up.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said at the time there would be a “period of change” to “improve, to achieve more and to deliver for Scotland’s pupils”. But union leaders say that, since then, the 1,000 staff within the SQA have been left with their jobs under threat and no information about whether they will still have jobs under the new regime.

Professor Ken Muir, the former chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, is leading efforts to replace the SQA with a new specialist agency for curriculum and assessment and investigate moving the inspection function away from Education Scotland.

Unite, which has the biggest union representation in the SQA covering senior heads of services right down to the most junior members of staff are today to begin a consultative ballot over industrial action. 

The union says there have been a number of staff resignations in recent weeks since the announcement of the scrapping of the SQA and has raised concerns about the loss of experience.  They also claim that there is also a difficulty in filling vacancies in the soon-to-be defunct exams body.

Alison MacLean, Unite industrial officer said there was concern that plans to replace the SQA might take years to complete, with an indication legislation might need to be passed, while staff remained in limbo.

She said the Scottish Government had failed to consult with unions and the workforce over the SQA replacement and also repeatedly failed to provide any meaningful responses to the “serious and pressing questions” from the workforce on job security, and what the shape of the new education standards and qualifications body will look like.

She says this is a breach of the Scottish Government’s own Fair Work principles whereby decisions “appear to have already made which offer no job security to our members which is why we are a launching an imminent consultative ballot on strike action”.

She added: “The impact of industrial action?  Absolutely yes, there is an impact on the exam diet, there is an impact on the ability to undertake this reform,” she said.

“The biggest issue for the public if industrial action takes place, is a threat to future exam diets as well as the reform of national qualifications being impacted and/or delayed. It appears decisions have been taken without any evaluation of the risks.

“The responsibility sits with the Scottish Government and the decisions they have done without any consultation, without any risk assessment done about what the impact might be on the workforce, while looking at experise and skills. 

“They are asking staff under threat of redundancy to carry on with a smile on their face. It is as if their locking them in a cupboard and saying we want you to do this work for us, but we can’t guarantee you will have job security.

“It is a political decision of Scottish Government and our members are being used as a political pawn and football in all of it.”

She said the move to replace had been “done in reverse” and should have been announced only after the Muir review was completed.

And she said that since it was announced the SQA was being replaced, Unite Scotland membership has risen by 15%.

“They need to pay the consequences of the decision and realise what the impact and consequences of that decision are.

“It is an absolute shambles. 

“Confidence in the chief Executive and the entire SQA executive management Team is at an all-time low.”

Unite and Unison Scotland has written to the education secretary raising concerns about how the axing of the SQA was being managed saying there was also anger that there had been no consultation before the Scottish Government announced a reform of national qualifications at the end of last month.

The Scottish government has confirmed it will reform the system of school assessments - but will not be scrapping traditional exams altogether.

Work to draw up the detail of the reforms will start in the new year.

Students are due to sit traditional exams under the SQA format at the end of the current academic year, following consultations with teachers, pupils and parents.

The union told the education secretary: “To say our members are incensed and that they have had enough is an understatement.

“This decision has come at a time when the Scottish Government have repeatedly failed to provide timely or meaningful responses to serious and pressing questions from the workforce on job security.

“Members do not have job security beyond the next five months and yet are expected to remain motivated and use their skills and experience to meet challenges created by Covid 19, to carry on business as usual, to engage with the Muir review regarding the replacement of their organisation and now, on top of all of this, contribute to a major curriculum review. 

“The fact this decision was taken without consulting with staff or offering any job security demonstrates absolute disregard for their views, health and wellbeing. The current situation is simply unacceptable.

“Ken Muir has not put pen to paper on the outcomes of his review yet the Scottish Government is already making pronouncements about the reform of national qualifications and assessment.”

The unions said that it was also concerned that senior SQA management stated to staff that they will make a “full and positive contribution to the reform processes for national qualifications and assessments outlined by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, drawing on our experience and expertise as Scotland’s qualifications body, and working in partnership with others across the education system”. 

The communication went on: “Whatever outcome emerges, it is critical that we all commit to maintaining the high standards that have long been the hallmark of Scotland’s qualifications.

“In the meantime, SQA will continue to fulfil its statutory functions and deliver for Scotland’s learners. This includes delivery of exams and other assessments to schools, colleges, employers and training providers in 2022, which learners can have pride in, and which universities, colleges and employers can have confidence in.”

The union has told the education secretary: “It is clear that the Scottish Government will be relying on all staff at the SQA to deliver this reform, yet they are unable to provide them with commitments around job security, which seems a contradiction in terms.

“Unite and UNISON opposes any reform of exam and assessment procedures without full consultation with our members in order to alleviate any concerns they may have about job security, preservation of terms and conditions, additional workloads and any potential redundancies that could come from the announcement to abolish the SQA.

“The Scottish Government are making decisions, they must now respond and realise the impacts of those decisions on the workforce.”

The unions are seeking assurance of no compulsory redundancies, protection of terms and conditions and meaningful consultation with union leaders.  

Unite is also demanding the SQA management to “support their workforce” and challenge the decision of the Scottish Government as opposed to “welcoming them and expecting that their workforce will simply rise to the challenges, without any regard to their health and wellbeing and the overall impacts of the situation they find themselves in”. 

The OECD review backed the curriculum as a whole, but said there was a “misalignment” between its aims and the narrow focus on exams in later years.

It said the “visionary ideals” of the curriculum - which was meant to be focused on producing more rounded individuals rather than teaching to tests - had not fully succeeded, with the qualifications system a “barrier” to its aims in secondary education.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We appreciate the announcement to replace SQA has caused uncertainty for staff and we are committed to ensuring that employment rights are protected. The matters raised by staff and unions are being carefully considered and we will continue to engage and consult with them to try to address concerns.”

An SQA spokesman said: “SQA management has continually pressed the Scottish Government for commitments on job security for staff since it announced in June that SQA is to be replaced. We understand the Scottish Government are actively considering the issue.”