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10 August 2020

Why Nicola Sturgeon’s apology over Scotland’s exams calamity isn’t enough

For the sake of her government’s credibility, Sturgeon must remove John Swinney as Scottish Education Secretary.

By Chris Deerin

There is always something refreshing about those rare occasions when a government must admit it screwed up. The preferred practice is to twist and shimmy, to recast the narrative and work the data in order to achieve a Messi-like escape from imminent danger.

Sometimes it even works. But not this time for the SNP. There has been national outrage since it emerged last week that pupils from poorer communities were more likely to have estimated grades marked down by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which “moderated” teachers’ professional judgement.

The marking system, introduced due to the coronavirus lockdown, meant that final results were influenced by the performance of a school in previous years. The Higher pass rate for pupils from the most disadvantaged areas were cut by 15.2 per cent between teacher estimates and the final results, but only by 6.9 per cent for pupils in the most affluent areas.

With schoolchildren protesting in the streets, Nicola Sturgeon’s apology today for the exams calamity in Scotland is necessary and right. The scale of the disaster, and its impact on the prospects of pupils and the opinions of their parents, made a mea culpa inevitable.

But is it sufficient? The impact on the public’s view of the SNP’s competence remains to be seen, but anecdotally it is significant. It still seems baffling from the outside that the dangers, both practical and political, were not seen and avoided. It suggests a government and ministers both complacent and arrogant, and who perhaps have been in power too long.

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It certainly seems that John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, has stayed in post beyond his time. Swinney, a former party leader and the current deputy leader, has been an SNP mainstay for decades. He is an amiable man and had long been viewed as a reliable political operator – experienced, capable, measured.

But his spell in the education brief has done nothing for his reputation. For a policy area identified by Sturgeon as her number one priority, the SNP’s handling of education has been lamentable. The Curriculum for Excellence has been distinctly un-excellent, holed below the waterline by unintended consequences and shabby compromises. Many disadvantaged kids are sitting fewer exams simply because of the school they attend, regardless of their ability. What data there is repeatedly shows performance is at best stagnating and declining in too many areas. The self-preserving teaching unions and their cohorts in the McBlob have successfully deterred Swinney and Sturgeon – reforms have been paltry, fights avoided, and children left to deal with the consequences.

Sturgeon said today that “despite our best intentions I do acknowledge that we did not get this right and I am sorry for that”. She promises a detailed plan from Swinney tomorrow and says her government will take responsibility for fixing the situation and will not expect “every student who has been downgraded to appeal – that’s on us”.

She also argues that the decisions around exam results were taken “with the right intentions”, but that the government had thought “too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil”.

I applaud the First Minister’s honesty in facing up to the disaster her administration has caused. She has a commendable willingness to speak plainly and frankly – it is that quality that is responsible for her popularity during the Covid-19 crisis.

But there are times in politics when words are not enough. There are times when only the sacrifice of a warm body will do. This is one of them. Had this scandal taken place at Westminster, have no doubt that the Nats would expect the English Education Secretary to resign. Had it been under another party at Holyrood, their response would be apoplectic.

This failure in competence is too great to be redressed by some after-the-fact surgery and an apology. If education is indeed Sturgeon’s main priority – and that increasingly seems like a handy fiction – then she must put pupils, parents and teachers first. Not the unions. Not the McBlob. And certainly not her Education Secretary.

It is time for Swinney to be relieved of his current ministerial burden, for the sake of accountability and, if it focuses the mind, for the sake of repairing the government’s credibility.

Sometimes the scale of the mistake is grave enough that saying sorry just won’t cut it. This, I’m afraid, is one such occasion.