This article appears as part of the Lessons to Learn newsletter.

Yesterday, the Scottish Government announced new legislation that proposes replacing the Scottish Qualifications Authority with something new called Qualifications Scotland and setting a date for the takeover – Autumn 2025.

The legislation also introduced a new, independent education inspectorate, and promised changes to Education Scotland to create a body more focused on curriculum improvement and delivery. But let’s take things one newsletter at a time.

So first: the SQA and Qualifications Scotland.

The immediate reaction to Qualifications Scotland was lukewarm. Unions warned that the new body had to be more than a rebranding exercise for the SQA, but in general the official statements were hesitant.

They did not immediately tear down what the legislation was trying to build, but despite the fact that the word “welcome” featured in every statement, the welcomes were certainly not warm.

Not everyone rode the fence, however. Teachers and commentators expressed frustration on social media, with many saying they weren’t surprised by the proposal for a new body that looks (and sounds) a lot like the SQA.

University of Stirling Emeritus Professor and education expert Walter Humes expressed similar doubts.

He told me that the new legislation is “disappointing, but not surprising”.

Why not surprising? Well, he said, look at how we got here.

“Following the original decision to replace SQA and reform Education Scotland, an Education Reform Programme Board was set up, together with three sub-boards.

“These were dominated by senior civil servants and senior staff in the organisations that were to be reformed.

“This allowed the existing educational establishment to defend their interests when what was needed were new voices and new ideas.

“What has emerged can be regarded as a triumph of bureaucratic defensiveness, with a few gestures in the direction of greater teacher representation within the new governance structure.”

In other words, efforts to replace the SQA and reform Education Scotland have been dominated by internal voices.

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Previous education reviews raised concerns that the SQA and other organisations have simply been “marking their own homework”.

That setup makes radical change unlikely. But maybe that wasn’t unintentional.

Speaking at the annual STEP (Scottish Teachers for Enhancing Practice) conference in March, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth said that her conversations with teachers caused her to rethink how strong the appetite was for “radical reform”. She suggested taking a slower approach and spending more time engaging with teachers.

But many teachers at that same conference asked me a version of the question: “Isn’t that why the government spent £1 million on consultations and reviews already?”

To Professor Humes, hesitating at this stage is not only a misreading of the mood in the classroom, but increases the risk that we will move backwards.

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“This whole episode raises wider questions about political consistency and continuity. The Expert Panel advising the Muir Report were encouraged by the then Cabinet Secretary for Education Shirley-Anne Somerville, to be ‘bold’. Her successor, Jenny Gilruth, appears to prefer timidity to boldness.

“The complacent and conformist professional culture of those leading Scottish education seems likely to continue.”

I was glad to hear Professor Humes bring up Professor Kenneth Muir of the University of the West of Scotland and his 2022 report “Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education.”

After all, when Professor Muir was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2021 to advise on education reforms, “Qualifications Scotland” was the name that he gave to his hypothetical SQA replacement.

So how does the proposed Qualifications Scotland compare to what Prof Muir suggested?

In short, he told me, it could be much worse.

The new legislation offers real potential for deeper and more regulated engagement with students and teachers. Critically, it leaves room for flexibility to adapt to the education system’s changing needs.

This was echoed by a Scottish Government spokesperson, who said that the new legislation will require Qualifications Scotland to “establish dedicated committees for learners and teachers, and to ensure the Board of Management has an increased number of members with relevant teaching experience.” 

In addition, the bill requires Qualifications Scotland to create two specific charters to “set out what learners and teachers should expect from Qualifications Scotland to ensure its processes are fair and transparent.”

The spokesperson added, however, that ministers have been clear that legislation alone will not provide the solution.

Instead, the bill provides a framework for continuing reform efforts alongside teachers.

But the potential for change is not the same as the promise of it.

(Image: Derek McArthur)
Prof Muir made it clear that, as the government itself stated, legislation is not enough – far from it.

Although, in fairness, no legislation was ever going to be the real solution, he said.

“Structural change in itself is welcomed, but it doesn’t bring about the kind of cultural shift and mindset shift that will have the kind of impact that the vast majority of teachers in Scottish schools want to see.”

“I can well understand why teachers and head teachers looking at this bill will think that it’s just a different brand above the SQA door.

“It cannot be that.

“Because if it is, it will not serve current and future learners well.”

Creating places within the new Qualifications Scotland for teachers and students to have a direct say is a critical step, Prof Muir said.

But, he added, “that can only work if the leadership structure within the new body allows it to work.”

And that can only be achieved if the Scottish Government fulfills what he sees as its newest duty: taking a clear, firm role in guiding the new qualifications body down the path that teachers, students and parents have been calling for and which was promised four years ago.

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One area where the proposal for Qualifications Scotland differs from Prof Muir’s recommendations is key: regulation and accreditation are still the responsibility of the same body.

When he presented his report to the government, he said that officials made it clear that establishing a separate regulatory body was “very much off the agenda.”

He sees room in the new legislation for ensuring new mechanisms for greater accountability – especially through the inclusion of teachers and learners as internal voices within Qualifications Scotland – if not quite legal regulation.

Still, whether those new mechanisms will serve their function or whether the new body will simply revert to the old ways of doing things will come down to two variables: whether the Qualifications Scotland leadership will commit to listening to students, teachers and reformers and whether the government is willing to take a firm hand in making sure they do so.

Prof Muir said those changes would be radical in their own right.

“One of the major criticisms that I got from the field work that I did talking to teachers, head teachers and students who had gone through the SQA experience was that this was an organisation that needed to listen and to take account more of the experiences of the users.”

Rebrand or restart? Unfortunately, only time will tell.

Thankfully, teachers and students are used to waiting.