Watchdogs at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are stepping in to work with Scotland’s exams body in a bid to ensure it improves its practices.
The move resulted in calls for the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to quit, with opposition politicians insisting that Fiona Robertson’s position is “untenable”.
It comes after the EHRC established that the SQA – which the Scottish Government has already announced plans to scrap – was not routinely assessing the impact of its policies and practices in the way it should under the public sector equality duty.
Under this duty, public bodies are meant to give “due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different groups”.
The SQA has now signed an agreement with the EHRC which will require the exams and qualifications body to complete outstanding equality impact assessments for its existing policies and practices.
It has also agreed it will improve its approach when carrying out assessments for any new policies it develops.
The EHRC will now monitor the work of the SQA for the next two years.
And with the announcement coming just over three months after Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville confirmed the SQA is to be abolished, opposition parties called on those in charge at the exams body to quit.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: “It’s a serious matter for the SQA to be rebuked in this manner.
“It should never be necessary for a public body responsible for the futures of our children to be chided for its failure to meet its human rights obligations.
“The position of the chief executive of the SQA is untenable. She has to go without delay.”
Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “This news makes it clear that the position of the SQA leadership is untenable – they should resign today.
“We know that in recent years, the decisions they have taken have damaged the poorest and most disadvantaged pupils in Scotland.
“But what this undeniably confirms is that there has been a complete lack of leadership within the organisation and from the Scottish Government.”
Lynn Welsh, the head of legal at the EHRC in Scotland, stressed that for bodies such as the SQA “considering equality implications when making decisions isn’t a ‘nice to do’ … it is a legal requirement to ensure that public institutions make better quality, robust decisions which work for everyone”.
She said that by signing the agreement with the EHRC, however, the SQA had “demonstrated its clear commitment to equality and to improving its practices”.
Welsh said: “This will ensure that SQA continues to make necessary improvements in this area, reviewing all existing policies and ensuring that equality is at the heart of all of its practices.”
She added: “This agreement sends a clear message to other public bodies that considering the impact of their work on people from protected groups is critical in fulfilling their legal duties.”
SQA’s director of finance and corporate services Mike Baxter said: “Although we have significantly tightened up on equality impact assessments in recent years, we recognise there is work to do to improve our processes and practice from years gone by.
“We will be taking this opportunity to work with the commission to further embed equality into our policies and processes across SQA’s activities.
“Over the next two years we will be delivering our agreed action plan across a range of work streams. We are fully committed to ensuring equality and fairness are at the heart of all we do.”
He added: “We have embarked on a large-scale programme of review of our policies and practices and assessing and documenting the equalities impacts of those is a core element of this work.”
SQA chairman David Middleton said: “The SQA has tightened up on equality impact assessments in recent years to ensure compliance with our equality duties.
“There are historic gaps that predate the current leadership and these are now being addressed in partnership with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
“The SQA leadership is fully focused on delivering for learners.”