Analysis: Exams decision may have come too late to save John Swinney's blushes

Whether the decision to cancel Higher and Advanced Higher exams in Scotland is the right decision will come down to the fundamental question of how you define fairness.
John Swinney will face criticism over his cancellation of examsJohn Swinney will face criticism over his cancellation of exams
John Swinney will face criticism over his cancellation of exams

For some parents – most vocally promoted by the activist group Us For Them Scotland – the decision fatally undermines the credibility of the qualifications being offered to their children.

These are the same parents who demanded schools open fully in August, so it is perhaps understandable that a group dedicated to ensuring normal schooling would decry the cancellation.

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Scots Highers and Advanced highers cancelled for 2021, John Swinney announces
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But there is some merit in the Scottish Government and John Swinney’s argument that the poorest have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 restrictions and requirements to self-isolate.

Covid-19 hits poorer communities harder and is more prevalent in older children, so it is no surprise attendance data bears out this disproportionate impact on those sitting Highers and Advanced Highers in these areas.

Whether you believe it is more important to retain credibility of qualifications for comparative value year-on-year, or you prefer a move to protect the attainment potential of the poorest in society by reducing the burden on those pupils, is a matter of opinion.

The move follows opposition pressure, spearheaded by the Scottish Greens as early as May, but drew the wrath of the Scottish Conservatives.

For Mr Swinney, it can be cast as another embarrassing U-turn, but that would be unfair.

Exams were unlikely to be going ahead as normal and the die was cast for Highers when the decision to cancel National 5s was made in October.

In fact, the decision yesterday may have shocked some, but was on the cards for months and that is where he will face the most significant criticism from those not opposed to the decision outright.

This decision has been made late – for many teachers and their already high workload, too late – and could have been made at the same time as the National 5s exams.

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Schools are now in the unenviable position to have to scramble, almost halfway through the school year, to self-assess their education and set up new processes over Christmas.

That is no mean feat and teachers, while welcoming certainty, will not be breathing a sigh of relief.

Whatever decision was to be made was always a no-win situation for Mr Swinney.

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