URGENT steps are required to improve the performance of the body responsible for overseeing Scotland’s school exams, politicians have said.

A report by MSPs warned the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was distracted by its wider commercial activities and demanded it return to the “core business” of setting and marking qualifications.

The conclusions came after the Scottish Parliament’s education committee conducted an inquiry into the activities of a number of public bodies charged with delivering education.

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During evidence sessions the committee heard a number of frustrations from teachers including issues with excessive and unclear guidance, complex administration and mistakes in exam papers issued by the SQA.

James Dornan, the committee convener, said: “The evidence our committee received was nothing less than eye opening about some of the problems.

“There continues to be confusing and contradictory messages coming from the very bodies that should be making it easy for our teachers to focus on the needs of our children.

“The committee found it hard to understand how, in particular, the SQA has met the needs of Scotland’s learners having designed qualifications that have created a huge workload for teachers and led to a breakdown in trust and threats of industrial action.”

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The report added: “The committee seeks assurance and evidence from the SQA that its commercial work is not diluting its focus on core business.”

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, described the evidence as “deeply worrying”.

Labour’s Daniel Johnson said the evidence taken by the committee amounted to a “litany of failures” and questioned whether the government’s proposed reform of school governance was the right approach.

However, John Swinney, the Education Secretary, said various organisations played a “crucial” role in delivering and improving education in Scotland.

In the wake of the report’s publication a row broke out between the committee and North Lanarkshire Council.

Mr Dornan said the council had prevented SNP MSP Fulton MacGregor from attending one of its schools to talk to staff.

Mr Dornan said: “Free and frank information from frontline staff is vital in enabling the committee to scrutinise the government, its agencies and local authorities effectively.

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Frank McNally, the council’s convener of education, dismissed the allegations as “total nonsense”.

He added: “Mr MacGregor contacted the council seeking access to schools within his constituency during teaching time. However, this would have caused significant disruption to classes.

“We instead gave him the chance to meet teachers in the afternoon, once children have gone home. However, he declined this offer.”

The committee also raised concerns about a review of the Scottish Funding Council, which could see its board scrapped.

The report calls on the Scottish Government to carefully consider the impact abolishing the board would have on higher education policies such as widening access before proceeding.