The Education Secretary has said she will personally ensure her reform plans lead to meaningful improvement amid fears they could be smothered by civil servants and bureaucrats.

Shirley-Anne Somerville made the remarks after her speech to the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) annual general meeting in Dundee.

She told The Herald: “I’m determined to deliver change. I think I’ve got a history within social security of showing that I can take a system that was very unpopular and change it into a system that is now trusted, and that’s what I’m determined to do in education as well.”

Her comments follow confirmation in March that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and standards body Education Scotland are to be replaced. A fully independent schools inspectorate will also be created. The announcement coincided with the publication of a major report on the education system by Professor Ken Muir, former chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

However, earlier this week, Professor Walter Humes, one of Scotland’s top education experts, claimed in an opinion piece for this newspaper that the reforms were in danger of being hijacked by officials who resist innovation. He added: “I understand that a Strategic Reform Programme Board, with several subordinate Boards, has been established. These are populated by the usual suspects – senior civil servants, directors of education, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) representatives and staff from the bodies which are to be replaced.

“It sounds like insider dealing, with those who are part of the problem being tasked with producing solutions. The prospects of the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy, a major cause of system inertia, being dismantled seem decidedly remote.”

Prof Humes, also a member of the expert panel that supported Prof Muir during the production of his report, claimed Scottish education had been damaged by a “conformist culture” which sees “too many people of modest talent being promoted to senior management positions”. He wrote that these individuals then proceed to “defend their territory, marginalise talented colleagues and resist new ideas”.

He added: “The system desperately needs creative people who are alert to the massive changes that are confronting education as a result of technological advances, geopolitical pressures and economic challenges. By delegating the reform programme to the usual players, the Cabinet Secretary runs of the risk of repeating the errors of her predecessors. Scottish education desperately needs new thinkers and new voices.”

Ms Somerville said: “What I would say to Walter and others who are concerned is that this reform process is getting led by a cabinet secretary who came in very early on in her time in government and laid down that we were going to be seeing significant changes. I’ll be overseeing that reform process to ensure that we get those significant changes out of it.” She also insisted that a “national discussion” about Scottish education would explore different ways of involving all those with a stake.

Ms Somerville told delegates during her EIS speech that ministers would be working “with teachers and other stakeholders to plan the national discussion to ensure it is inclusive of all those interests”. She added: “As part of that, I look forward to working with you all as we develop this discussion and our wider reform programme. I know that you will be keen to understand how and when that will happen, and I will be setting that out before the end of the term.”