Scotland's two key national education agencies are to be reformed following widespread anger over their performance in recent months.

MSPs have been told the role, remit and purpose of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland will be considered, as well as their functions and governance arrangements. 

Union leaders welcomed Thursday's announcement from Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, which comes as concern grows over this year's alternative certification process.

Ms Somerville has also outlined wide-ranging plans for learning recovery in the first 100 days of government and beyond.

They include investing over £1 billion to close the poverty related attainment gap, recruiting 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants, and ensuring every schoolchild has access to the technology they need to support their education.

Among other planned improvements is a move to make free school lunches available to all P4 children before extending to all primary school children, all year round.

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The programme was set out during a special debate that saw MSPs pass a Government motion praising its "ambitious" education plans by 68 votes to 32. Opposition amendments were defeated, including one tabled by the Scottish Greens that would have resulted in a declaration of no confidence in the SQA.

The Education Secretary told MSPs the priority was to continue delivering excellence and equity, despite the pandemic, with pupil health and wellbeing at the forefront of her plans. 

“I hope this programme outlines our determination to deliver improvements with pace and urgency," she said.

"I am open to considering what further reform is necessary, with the clear purpose of doing all we can to improve outcomes for children. This includes reducing variability in the outcomes children and young people achieve across the country.

“I want to look at options for reform which ensure that schools get the best possible support and challenge to enable them to improve further and to do the very best for the children in their care; to enable them to focus relentlessly on providing the highest quality of learning and teaching for our children, and to ensure that those working in education outwith schools are fully focused on doing everything they can to provide the highest quality of support.

“I want to signal my intention to start this process by considering how to reform the SQA and Education Scotland. This will be a key priority for me.”

HeraldScotland: This year's National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled.This year's National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled.

Ms Somerville said the reform plans would be informed by the findings of the OECD review into Curriculum for Excellence, which is due to be published on June 21.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “We have for some time been arguing for reform of the SQA and, in particular, the need for a stronger governance model which would see the qualifications authority more accountable to the Education system and the profession, rather than to the Scottish Government or an opaque, Government appointed, Board.

"Our members have often found the SQA to be too remote from classroom practice and a significant generator of additional workload for teachers. 

"Reform of the qualifications body should be matched by changes to the senior phase, which focus on creating time for deeper learning, breadth of study and parity between ‘academic’ and vocational’ qualifications.”

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Mr Flanagan added: “With regard to Education Scotland the key issue is to create more independence for this body and move it closer to its role of supporting schools and teachers rather than being under the direction of the Scottish Government.  

"Education Scotland should be free to challenge Government rather than being an extension of the civil service. There also needs to be a significant review of the usefulness of the current inspection process in what is meant to be an empowered education system.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said: "It is abundantly clear from the current mess created by the Scottish Government and the SQA over the arrangements for the awarding of this summer qualifications that reform is needed.

“Teachers have lost confidence in both the SQA and Education Scotland and an overhaul of systems and structures is now needed in the best interests of schools, teachers and pupils.

“These reforms must not be a cosmetic exercise. The NASUWT has already warned that a growing over-emphasis on assessment and bureaucracy is disempowering teachers, damaging their morale and undermining their ability to meet the needs of their pupils.

“The founding principal of any overhaul must be to develop a genuinely collegiate education system which recognises and values learning in its widest sense and in which teachers are empowered and supported to focus on teaching and learning.

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“The Cabinet Secretary will now be judged on the pledges she has set out today. The Minister must provide further details of how the promised £1 billion to close the attainment gap will be spent and whether this is all ‘new’ funding.

“Similarly, if the pledge to recruit 3,500 new teachers and teaching assistants over the life of this parliament is to be met, it will require additional investment in pay levels and tangible action to address the drivers of excessive workload and stress which drive so many out of a career in education and deter others from joining. Action to retain teachers will be as critical as steps to recruit them.”