INVESTIGATION: Five-star foreign trips by SQA bosses shelved

            The SQA’s Alistair Wylie spent £3200 on seven-night trip to Vancouver.

By Rory Murphy

Scotland’s exam body has shelved its culture of five-star international junkets following an investigation by the  Sunday Mail newspaper.

The qualification quango – set to be axed after a series of scandals and falling education standards among school pupils – has slashed its taxpayer-funded international trips after a series of revelations in the newspaper.

In 2019 they revealed how bosses at the Dalkeith-based organisation had been on 125 foreign junkets, often staying in luxury five-star hotels and jetting around the world in first and business class.

But new figures show how the trips dried up following the damaging exposes.

The SQA is under fire over foreign trips and its deal with a college with close links to the internationally reviled Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
SQA bosses then limited overseas junkets to just three in the year before the pandemic curtailed international travel.

SQA head of service Alistair Wylie spent seven nights in October 2019 in Vancouver, ­Canada, at a cost of more than £3200. The qualification official was there to “attend and present” at the Association of the International Credential Evaluation Professionals.

Two months earlier John McMorris, the quango’s director of business development, spent £2400 on an eight-night trip to Mexico to meet members of the new Mexican government’s Department of Energy and the Mexican Petroleum Institute.

Leading politicians said quango chiefs were forced to rein in international spending over a series of scandals. Our investigation also exposed deals the SQA had done with dodgy regimes including Saudi Arabia and Brunei.

Campaigning Scottish Greens education spokesperson – he has also been leading the opposition into the Flamingo Land project in Balloch on Loch Lomondside – Ross Greer said: “This huge reduction in international travel is very welcome, even it only came about after intense scrutiny inside and outside of Parliament.

“I’m particularly glad that our campaigning on human rights concerns resulted in the SQA’s withdrawal from six countries with appalling records, including Saudi Arabia.

“There have long been concerns the SQA management’s focus on this international business activity has resulted in a lack of focus on their responsibilities in Scotland.

“The recent series of scandals certainly lends weight to that argument. Now that the exams agency is to be scrapped, rebalancing these priorities must be a key consideration for its replacement.”

Bosses averaged 41 overseas trips a year pre-2019, including stays at the Ritz-Carlton in Saudia Arabia prior to a deal to help provide IT qualifications for the dictatorship now involved in a proxy war in Yemen.

The SQA had previously fought the Sunday Mail over revealing details of its international spending.

It claimed information on the accommodation and airlines its officials used would put the security of its travelling staff at risk from terrorist attacks. But it was forced to disclose the information after the Scottish Information Commissioner intervened.

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said: “We welcome the news the SQA has finally cut back on lavish overseas lobbying trips.

“However, it is too little too late for the thousands of pupils that have been negatively affected by their incompetence.

“The SNP turned a blind eye to any criticism of its failings.”

The SQA said: “We have reduced our carbon emissions every year since 2013 and our chief executive Fiona Robertson introduced an updated travel policy in November 2019 shortly after she started.

“We had already taken steps to reduce its use of flights by working and communicating remotely as much as possible.

“There have also been major advances in remote working facilities and investments across the world, including many of the countries that we work with, which has allowed less air travel.

“The international work costs are fully recoverable and make a contribution which is re-invested into Scotland’s education and skills system.”

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