John Swinney is under pressure to reform two of Scotland’s key education agencies after opposition politicians teamed up to back sweeping change.

They want to see schools watchdog Education Scotland broken up, with inspection activities split from its curriculum development role.

MSPs are also demanding the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) be made “more accountable” and say teachers should be at the heart of governance structures.

It comes after the Scottish Liberal Democrats tabled a motion calling for changes and accusing the agencies of letting down staff, pupils and parents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: Move to break up schools watchdog

Reforms were backed at Holyrood by 65 votes to 58. However, the result is not legally binding.

An SNP attempt to amend the motion was voted down by 64 votes to 61.

Mr Swinney, who is Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary, hit back strongly against criticism of the two agencies, describing it as “gratuitous and unfounded”.

HeraldScotland: Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.

But Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “This vote makes quite clear what is expected... We need the organisations in charge of Scottish education to get out of the way of teachers, and in must come an education system overseen by people with current and direct teaching experience.

“In this crisis teachers have been creative, dedicated, full of good ideas. They know what their pupils need. We can’t say that of Education Scotland and the SQA.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon gives go-ahead for phased reopening of schools

He also called for an interim version of the OECD’s review of Scottish education to be published so the public can judge the performance of Mr Swinney and his colleagues ahead of May’s Holyrood election.

During Wednesday’s debate, Tory MSP Jamie Greene compared the Education Secretary to Bill Murray’s character from Groundhog Day, saying: “Mr Swinney is our very own Phil Connors, trapped in the endless gloom of this endless loop.”

Fellow Conservative Oliver Mundell also attacked the Government’s record on achievement in deprived communities.

But Mr Swinney defended the exams body and schools watchdog, saying they did not deserve the “pathetic” and “shabby” criticism from the Liberal Democrats.

READ MORE: John Swinney stresses 'every possibility' of blended learning in Scottish high schools

He also said Covid-19 had presented “enormous challenges” for the education sector.

“It serves neither the country nor our children and young people to attack the contribution of some of those staff in Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualification Authority for their efforts,” he went on.

Mr Swinney said a number of indicators had improved, adding: “Young people are doing better today than they did when this Government took office. That’s the record I’m going to take to the streets of this country on May 6.”

Meanwhile, new research shows that Scotland’s funding levels for pupil catch-up are the highest in the UK.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) published its latest findings after the Scottish Government announced £60 million of additional investment in Covid-related education recovery, including the employment of more teachers, classroom support staff and facilities management.

HeraldScotland: Funding for pupil catch-up is higher in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK, new research shows. Funding for pupil catch-up is higher in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK, new research shows.

Experts say per pupil funding north of the Border now stands at £200.

Luke Sibieta, EPI research fellow, said: “The Scottish and UK Governments have so far committed the most catch-up funding. However, the programmes for both Scotland and England are poorly targeted.

"In comparison, we find that the programmes of Wales and Northern Ireland have lower funding in total, but focus more resources on the poorest pupils.”