EXAMS in Scotland face a new threat of disruption over strike action is as 84.4% backed industrial action in a dispute over a "failure" to consult with staff of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) over ministers' plans to scrap it.

The union Unite warned earlier this month while that there would be consultative ballot on strike action at the SQA claiming that after four months, the workforce had been "locked out" of discussions over their futures and the new educational standards body.

Unite, which has the biggest union representation in the SQA covering senior heads of services right down to the most junior members of staff confirmed its dispute at the SQA was ‘not over’ due to the "repeated failure" by the examination body and the Scottish Government to consult and engage with trade unions.

A consultative ballot showed that 84.4% were prepared to take industrial action in a 78.4% turnout.

The ballot result follows what the union called "months of inaction" by the Scottish Government and the SQA over the failure to provide commitments on job security, pay and working conditions.

Unite said that despite reports that Scottish Government has made a number of commitments to around 1,000 staff at the SQA, it had not been informed of any guarantees over job security, pay, and working conditions.

Unite has also severely criticised the failure by the Scottish Government and the SQA to meaningfully consult with Unite and the representative trade unions in breach of Fair Work principles.

It comes as education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville wrote to SQA management  giving reassurances to staff over plans to replace the agency.

Ms Somerville gave a commitment that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a direct result of any restructuring required due to the replacement of the SQA.

The Education Secretary also said she expected staff terms and conditions to be protected throughout the reform process.

Ms Somerville said: “I have said consistently that I fully appreciate that SQA staff are understandably concerned about the future, and that I am grateful for the hugely important work that everyone does. We are committed to continuing to work with SQA management to lead staff through this challenging time.”

Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary said: “Unite has not been directly informed of any guarantees over jobs, pay and conditions at the SQA. We have absolutely nothing at all to go back to our members with. Unite will now consult our members on the next steps including an industrial action ballot – ultimately it is for our members to decide whether this dispute is over.”

HeraldScotland:

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

The pandemic also brought particular focus onto the school qualifications system, with criticism about how grades were decided after formal exams were cancelled two years running.

In response to this, the government announced that the SQA was to be broken up and replaced, with schools agency Education Scotland also set for a shakeup and 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 said earlier this month that since then the 1000 staff within the SQA have been left with their jobs under threat and with no information about whether they will still have jobs with the new regime.

HeraldScotland:

Alison MacLean, Unite industrial officer, added: "The dispute which Unite has with the SQA is not over in any way, shape or form.

"The SQA are fooling no one by their assertions that they have delivered for their staff. It has only been through the relentless pressure of Unite including a consultative ballot result which shows 84.4% are prepared to take industrial action that we seem to have woke-up both the Scottish Government and the SQA after months of inaction. There has been a consistent track record of not consulting and engaging with the trade unions, clearly in breach of Fair Work principles. This repeated and disrespectful failure is absolutely central to the dispute.”

The union told the Herald earlier this month that there had 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.

Unite and Unison Scotland have previously 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.

HeraldScotland:

The education secretary told the SQA:  "I acknowledge that SQA senior management has, since the announcement was made to replace SQA, sought to secure reassurances on behalf of its staff. You will appreciate that these are complex and potentially wide-reaching issues, that have required careful consideration.

"As you know, pay policy is currently set on an annual basis, with the current pay policy including a commitment to NCR [No Compulsory Redundancy] across the Scottish public sector until the end of March 2022. Decisions on future years will be made in due course.

"Notwithstanding any commitments to NCR that may be included in future pay policy, I can confirm that SQA can give a commitment to staff that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a direct result of any restructuring required due to replacement of SQA.

"You also requested commitments in relation to the application of TUPE and COSoP. You will appreciate that, until we have received and considered recommendations from Professor Muir, it is not possible to say which roles will be in scope of any potential transfer or transfers. However, I can confirm that my clear expectation is that, throughout this process, terms and conditions will be protected.

"I can also give a commitment that, having assessed whether staff are in scope of any transfer, in the event where it is identified that roles are no longer required, we will facilitate redeployment across the Scottish public sector, work with you and SQA management to explore the potential benefits in a programme of support for staff considering forward career options and development, and support SQA in developing a voluntary exit scheme where appropriate.

"In addition to these commitments I see continued strong engagement as essential to effective reform. I therefore propose that, following delivery of Professor Muir’s recommendations to me (which I expect to be in early 2022) a tripartite forum will be established between SQA, Scottish Government and Education Scotland to take forward an agreed transition and change management process. This will include continued dialogue with trade unions.

"Finally, you also asked for a temporary relaxation of pay policy to enable financial incentives for recruitment and retention of staff, where necessary. This is already possible under the existing pay policy and a business case in respect of any relevant roles can be brought forward by the SQA, through their sponsor team and Public Sector Pay Policy team, on a case-by-case basis, to be considered by the Remuneration Group.

 "I hope that this reply enables you to provide further clarity and certainty to staff. My officials are ready to discuss the detail of this further with you and I look forward to continuing to work with you to deliver reform which ultimately delivers even better outcomes for learners – a goal that I know we all share."