SCOTLAND’s Education Secretary has signalled “the time is right” to reform qualifications – but has confirmed formal exams will not be scrapped.

But union leaders have warned that the timescale for introducing the new framework for qualifications, which will run until August 2024, is “woefully inadequate”.

The move comes after the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which urged ministers to consider reforming what had been branded a “19th century” set-up for testing and examinations.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville had already confirmed the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be replaced. Ministers are also preparing to break up standards body Education Scotland, with inspection activity due to be split off and made independent.

READ MORE: Scottish education: OECD study proposes exams overhaul

Ms Somerville told MSPs that learners studying for national qualifications in spring next year will not be affected by any changes.

She stressed that “externally assessed qualifications will remain part of the new system”.

Ms Somerville said: “The issue of assessment and qualifications generates strong and sometimes conflicting opinions. However, I am convinced that given the experience and views expressed over the last two years, the time is right to signal that the Scottish Government supports reform of national qualifications and assessment.

“It will be vital, when considering reform, that we work with all stakeholders to, as far as possible, build a consensus on this issue.

“The Scottish Government will consult on the purpose and principles which should underpin any reform of national qualifications and assessment. This will be the first step in a process which will be done with careful thought and consideration, recognising the importance of national qualifications to learners.”

The Education Secretary told MSPs that a “sample-based survey” will be set up, which will be tasked with “looking across the capacities of Curriculum for Excellence”.

A reference group, led by professor of educational assessment and innovation at Glasgow University, Louise Hayward, will be set up to provide advice to ministers on the reforms.

READ MORE: OECD Report: Scotland should reform '19th century' pupil assessments

Professor Hayward said: “In the senior phase, assessment and qualifications matter for all young people, their parents/carers, their teachers, to local authorities and regional improvement collaboratives, to colleges, universities and employers.

“Any change needs to be based on insights from each of those communities and grounded in evidence from research. Crucially, the voices of young people, so often peripheral to debates in the past, must be listened to and heard.”

But the Scottish Conservatives have accused the SNP and Greens Government of being in denial over problems identified by the OECD.

The party’s education spokesperson, Oliver Mundell, said: “Far from restoring standards in our education system and seeking to reverse the 14 years of damage the SNP have done to our once-proud educational traditions, this statement confirms that the only plans the SNP have got is to double down on radical and ill-thought-out reforms to exams which will end exams as we know them.

“On top of that, we see a continuation of the very denial that got us into this mess in the first place – which sees a government glossing over the identified weaknesses in CfE, particularly in relation to knowledge.”

By Ms Somerville rejected the accusations, insisting the way forward was to have “a discussion about the best way of us being able to look at what a learner achieves and be able to recognise that achievement”.

Scottish Labour’s Education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “It’s been over five months since the SNP admitted that the SQA needs to be scrapped – but we are no closer to replacing it.

“However unfit the SQA is, the Education Secretary is content to leave it to oversee future year’s exams.

“Scottish Labour set out a timetable for ambition that recognises the urgency of the need for reform – but the SNP ignored it.

“By now, our plans would have seen an independent inspectorate established, an interim body for assessment and curriculum in place, and negotiations underway regarding a new deal for teachers.

“That would be real urgency and ambition for our young people.

“The reality is this is set to be another wasted parliamentary term for education in Scotland.”

But teching union leaders have raised concerns over a lack of urgency in bringing forward the reforms.

EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan warned “there is a danger that the multitude of fora being created will simply provide a smokescreen for an even more centralised approach to education governance”.

He added: “The EIS believes that the proposed timescale around the introduction of a new qualification framework is woefully inadequate – this is an urgent problem highlighted by the pandemic where the clear inequity of the previous high stakes exam approach was exposed for all to see.

“The delivery of a new qualifications framework needs an urgent approach so that we do not default back to a discredited system which failed too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”