In a major climbdown the First Minister – who last week backed the results and claimed that relying on teachers’ estimates which would have seen a rise in passes for the most disadvantaged children as not “credible” – admitted the government had put too much emphasis on the system of grading rather than on the work of individual children.
As a result she said Mr Swinney, who is now facing a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament, would today set out a plan to “fix” the situation, but that the onus was on the government to resolve it, rather than schools or pupils putting in individual appeals.
This sparked speculation that all downgraded results would be automatically upgraded, while those who benefited from grade inflation would be allowed to keep the award given by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
Ms Sturgeon said: “We will be taking steps to ensure that every young person gets a grade that recognises the work they have done. Our concern – which was to make sure that the grades young people got were as valid as those they would have got in any other year – perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil.
“That has meant that too many have lost out on grades that they think they should have had and also that that has happened as a result not of anything they’ve done, but because of a statistical model or an algorithm, and in addition that burden has not fallen equally across our society.”
She added: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that. The most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year. We will not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal.”
However, her apology was branded as “forced” and “too late” by opposition MSPs, who said Mr Swinney now had 24 hours to find a solution to the “shambles”. They also said that a motion of no confidence, laid in Holyrood by Scottish Labour and backed by the Scottish Conservatives, would “still be pursued” no matter what Mr Swinney announced.
Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said: “It is frankly hypocritical for the First Minister to apologise today after refusing to accept for over a week that an injustice had occurred. This apology is more concerned with protecting John Swinney’s job than facing up to the failures of her government. Scottish Labour and other parties warned the First Minister and John Swinney for months and were ignored.
“A belated and forced apology is not good enough. We need an immediate return to the grades recommended by teachers for those who saw their grades reduced.
“It’s time pupils and teachers got justice and Swinney got his jotters.”
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said Mr Swinney “must be sacked as education secretary to restore confidence in Scotland’s schools” and despite Ms Sturgeon “absolving” the SQA of responsibility, he backed calls for a Holyrood inquiry into the exams body.
He said: “Given how poorly the SNP have understood the issues facing Scotland’s young people, we will wait and see the detail of tomorrow’s announcement before judging this apparent U-turn. But it’s clear that after missing the boat on fixing the SQA issues months ago, now Nicola Sturgeon is missing the point on John Swinney as education secretary.”
He added: “This isn’t about one issue. John Swinney’s report card is littered by F-grades every year and confidence in his ability to run our schools has evaporated.
“He’s survived this exams fiasco, the blended learning U-turn, years of falling PISA standards, Named Persons, subject choice limitations, the P1 testing debacle, dropping the Education Bill, widespread multi-level teaching, failing to reduce the attainment gap, and hundreds of teacher vacancies every single year.
“Whether Mr Swinney lives to fail another day or not, we need an urgent parliamentary inquiry into how this mess was allowed to happen.”
The Scottish Greens’ education spokesman Ross Greer said: “I’m pleased that the First Minister has now acknowledged that her government got this wrong and apologised.”
And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: “We will listen to John Swinney’s proposals and if we are not satisfied with what he puts forward, we will vote to remove him.”