John Swinney still faces calls to resign despite withdrawing downgraded exam grades

Scotland's Education Secretary, John Swinney, is facing continued calls to resign, despite bowing to pressure from young people and parents and withdrawing downgraded exam results with pupils now due to receive grades based on teacher estimates.

Education Secretary John Swinney
Education Secretary John Swinney

Apologising for the exams fiasco, which saw more than 124,000 estimated grades marked down by the Scottish Qualifcations Authority, the embattled minister said he understood the “anger and anguish” caused by the moderation system, which most impacted teenagers in deprived areas.

He said the system had set out to be “fair and credible” but admitted “we did did not get it right for every young person and I want to apologise for that”. He added that an “apology was not enough” and as a result “all downgraded exam grades will be withdrawn.”

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Using powers in the Education (Scotland) Act of 1996, he said he would direct the SQA to reissue the awards “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgements” and that new certificates would be issued “as soon as possible” while universities and colleges would also be informed “as soon as practicable” to allow young people to progress to higher education.

However the volte-face by Mr Swinney, who admitted he knew the results five days before they were sent to pupils and has consistently defended the SQA’s adjusting of grades, did not dampen opposition parties’ demands for him to resign and he will face a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said he “humiliating climbdown” was welcome and “a victory for fairness, for common sense and above all for those young people who refused to take this injustice lying down” and urged him to “take responsibility and resign”.

But Mr Swinney said his responsibility was to find a solution, and added: “I’ve come here to do what young people in Scotland want me to do and that’s to fix it and I’ve done that right away at the earliest possible opportunity. I’ve done that openly and honestly in front of Parliament.”

Defending the “robust” methodology employed by the SQA, he said it was being used “in countless jurisdictions around the world”, but added: “What we have recognised here, is that the application of that methodology has created an injustice and an unfairness to young people and I’ve come to Parliament to remedy it. I hope young people take heart from their actions that the government has responded.”

The Conservative’s education spokesman, Jamie Greene, said Mr Swinney’s announcement was a “resignation statement without the resignation” and while the u-turn was welcome, it was “overdue” and had not “restored confidence in his ability to manage Scotland’s schools.”

Listing what he described as “10 schools’ scandals”, including falling PISA standards, the scrapping of Named Persons legislation and an Education Bill, rows over primary testing, and a delayed review of the curriculum of excellence, he added: “This humiliating u-turn is as welcome as it is overdue.

"The SNP defended their shocking handling of this scandal to the hilt, right up until it became clear that opposition parties would unite to force a change. Mr Swinney’s apology does not change the fact that he has presided over a litany of failures, any one of which could have been a resignation issue on its own.”

However as a result of his announcement, it is expected the vote of no confidence will fall, with Mr Swinney being backed by the Scottish Greens, whose education spokesperson Ross Greer said: “I warned for four months that this would happen, and that it would be unacceptable. Unfortunately, the Education Secretary and SQA refused to listen then, but I am glad that they are listening now.”

Schools will now be expected to confirm the estimates they provided for pupils to those returning to classes this week, with the SQA issuing fresh certificates. The exams body is also expected to inform UCAS and other higher education admission bodies of the new grades in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed.

Mr Swinney confirmed that pupils who saw their grades moderated upwards would not be downgraded now, and said the planned appeals process would no longer be required. He added: “Many of those young people will already have moved on to secure college or university places on the strength of the awards made to them. To unpick them now would not in any way be fair.

“Finally, due to the unique circumstances of this situation, we will this year make provision for enough places in universities and colleges to ensure that no one is crowded out of a place they would otherwise have been awarded.”

The regrading will now mean that the 2020 National 5 pass rate stands at 88.9% - 10.7 percentage points higher than last year - with the Higher pass rate rising by 14.4 percentage points to 89.2%. The Advanced Higher pass rate will be 93.1%, which is 13.7 percentage points higher than 2019. Last week both Mr Swinney and First Minsiter Nicola Sturgeon said such pass rates were not “credible”.

Teachers’ union, the EIS, welcomed Mr Swinney’s statement but General Secretary Larry Flanagan placed the blame on the SQA. He said:“We urged the SQA to hold professional dialogue with centres where apparent anomalies were evident, but it refused to do so – preferring to focus instead on its own perceived profile as custodians of standards. Its standing amongst teachers is undoubtedly tarnished by its role in these matters.

“The SQA should be less accountable to the Scottish Government and more accountable to the teaching profession, parents and pupils. It needs to shed some of its hubris and listen more to teachers and their representatives.”

Mr Swinney also announced that the postponed OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence would have its remit extended to assess the “Scottish approach to qualifications” and that the SQA would also begin “a rapid consultation exercise on options for change” for next year’s exam diet. An independent review is also to be conducted by Professor Mark Priestly of Stirling University into the SQA’s alternative model used this year, including the moderation process, with an intitial report due in five weeks.

He added: “These are exceptional times, and in exceptional times truly difficult decisions have to be made. It is deeply regrettable that we got this wrong. I am sorry for that.

“We were concerned that grade inflation would run the risk of undermining the value of grades, but we now accept that concern is outweighed by the concern that young people, from working class backgrounds, may lose faith in the system - that is is stacked against them. Education is the route out of poverty for young people in deprived communities, and we cannot allow that view to take hold.”

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director

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