Brian Wilson: Our children have been failed, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are accountable

The buck stops with them, so both Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney must be held to account, writes Brian Wilson

Scottish students stage protests in Edinburgh and Glasgow
Scottish students stage protests in Edinburgh and Glasgow

Current Scottish politics are normally the territory of despair. This week, they deserve to be the source of anger and contempt.

Anger on behalf of the young who have been despicably treated.

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Anger about how disadvantage is reinforced rather than challenged in a society where lip-service passes for progress.

The usual assumption that glib “lines to take”, repeated often enough, would get Swinney and Sturgeon through the day, serene in their untouchability, was contemptible on a matter which was about real, young lives – not statistics.

“Pass rates were up” and “the attainment gap narrowed” on the basis of exams that never happened. Both utterly meaningless, manipulated claims which ignored the individual injustices that were repeatedly warned against yet built into the system.

Thank goodness for the articulate young victims who have not been prepared to give them the easy ride to which they are accustomed. I hope they and their parents will now use every available mechanism to seek redress. Put me down for the fighting fund.

And let Scotland never forget that these young people were marked down, not because of who they are or what they have achieved, but of where they come from. That is what Sturgeon and Swinney have dug deeper to defend.

Pre-devolution, I was Scottish Education Minister for a year. Every decision I took was motivated by a desire to reverse disadvantage, starting in the earliest years. Why would it not be?

Call it ideological if you like, but that is what I was in politics to do. And it would have been the same for any Minister with a shred of social justice in their DNA.

If the SQA – a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Scottish Government – had come with a plan which meant high-achieving pupils being penalised because they attended lower-achieving schools, the conversation would have consisted of two sentences.

The first: “Are you out of your minds?” The second: “Under no circumstances must this happen.”

This week I heard a despairing youngster who achieved 90 per cent in his prelims but was marked down to a B by the SQA. His offence was to be a pupil of Drumchapel High. Ugh! Mark him down and blame the algorithms.

Or the 17-year-old in Uist who wrote to Swinney: “To have my grades knocked down so significantly has not only made me have to completely reconsider my career path but has also made me lose confidence in myself.” Did anyone think of the impacts on individual lives before authorising this monstrous process?

Sturgeon now says everyone can appeal, so that’s all right. Oh, no it isn’t. Much of the damage will not be reversed. The stigma cast upon schools which stand accused of dragging down their own pupils will not go away. The disregard for teachers’ judgments will not be forgotten.

And if mass appeals can sort everything out, why could the same attention to individual cases not have been applied before these results were produced?

Twenty years ago, Sam Galbraith and his young family were holidaying with us in Lewis. For a man in poor health, as was well known, it was a vital break.

Then all hell broke loose at the SQA over exam results though – as subsequently confirmed – it was for well-concealed reasons no Minister could have known of.

None of that stopped Nicola Sturgeon, who was merciless in her demands that Sam must resign. “The buck stops with the education minister”, she cried with the same eye for a headline on which she built a career. Sam, in contrast, built his around common humanity and using politics to create opportunities for others.

That story also reminds us how long these people have been around – Swinney, Sturgeon and the ones never allowed near the daily pulpit.

They are managerial creatures of Holyrood who have done nothing else in their lives.

When an issue of real politics arises, it shows. Make no mistake, this premeditated, callous treatment of young people by those in positions of trust is real politics for which the perpetrators must be held to account.


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