SQA and Scottish Government accused of 'cover-up' over claim of no written record of eight meetings involving John Swinney

John Swinney and the SQA have been accused of “trying to cover up their incompetence” over the exam results fiasco and criticised for failing to get their stories straight by opposition politicians.

The SQA have been accused of covering up the exam results fiasco.

Fresh accusations of a “cover up” come as it emerges SQA officials claimed no agendas or minutes were circulated at eight separate meetings between the education secretary, chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, and SQA and government officials.

Instead, the meetings which took place between early March 11 and results day on August 4 were said to have had just one linked document; a briefing note for the education secretary detailing the outcome and methodology of the SQA’s much-criticised statistical moderation system.

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The SQA’s official stance is contradicted by a separate Scottish Government disclosure that published an agenda circulated for one of the meetings between the deputy first minister and the exams chief in June, alongside a document titled ‘Top lines/Discussion Points’, understood to be a briefing document circulated prior to the meeting.

It is understood the omission of several documents was due to an administrative error.

In response, the SQA denied it was hiding anything from the public while the Scottish Government said Mr Swinney had been “clear about his engagement” with the qualifications authority and had released information pertaining to those meetings.

Both chief executive of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, and the education secretary came under fierce pressure to quit after protests from students against the SQA’s moderation system led to a significant U-turn from Mr Swinney.

The exam results fiasco also saw Mr Swinney narrowly win a no-confidence vote in Holyrood from MSPs after an agreement was struck with the Scottish Greens for students to receive unmoderated teacher estimates for their grades.

This discrepancy has fuelled claims of a Scottish Government and SQA cover-up, with Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Iain Gray stating that the revelations showed an “unacceptable level of secrecy” and an “attempt to hide something”.

Highlighting findings in the Scottish Government commissioned review into the ‘alternative certification model’ authored by Professor Mark Priestley, Mr Gray said both the SQA and the Scottish Government were “still trying to cover up their incompetence”.

He said: “The Priestley review of the SQA awards fiasco showed exactly how pupils from deprived communities were systematically marked down on the basis of the school they went to, while pupils from prosperous areas and private schools suffered far less.

"It also showed that John Swinney knew what was happening, but tried to spin his way through, only carrying out his U-turn when pupils were protesting and he faced a confidence vote.”

Reacting to the suggestion no minutes were taken, Mr Gray accused the Scottish Government and the SQA of a cover-up.

He added: “He has always claimed that he did not engage or interfere with the development of the moderation by the SQA. Now we see that he was in regular contact with them throughout the critical months.

"Yet the SQA claim no minutes, notes or agendas were kept for these conversations in spite of evidence to the contrary. This is an attempt to hide something.

"It is an unacceptable level of secrecy about how decisions were made which affected hundreds of thousands of pupil grades. The SQA and Mr Swinney are still trying to cover up their incompetence.

“This was a fiasco, and it should have cost the education secretary his job.”

The Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said it was “hard not to get suspicious” about the SQA and the Scottish Government’s handling of the exam results fiasco.

He said that detailed answers had been requested by Holyrood’s education committee around the time of the meetings, questions which went unanswered by the SQA and the Scottish government.

Mr Greer said: “We warned for months that the process would be a disaster, but they refused to listen.

“Given the exam authority’s culture of secrecy and breath-taking arrogance, it’s sadly believable that no minutes were taken at critical meetings with the education secretary.

“Where it all gets very hard to believe is this wider claim that no related documents, including agendas, exist. That’s a problem, given we already have a copy of one of those agendas.

"When the Scottish Government and SQA can’t get their stories straight, it’s hard not to get suspicious. I suggest they write to Parliament immediately to clarify these conflicting statements.”

An SQA spokesman said: “There is no attempt to hide anything. A number of Freedom of Information requests issued by both Scottish Government and SQA have highlighted the discussions that took place and the associated timeline.

“The Deputy First Minister has set out the measures for the delivery of qualifications in the 2020/21 session, and SQA is now focused on taking that work forward.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Deputy First Minster has been clear about his engagement with the SQA on this issue, which has also been set out in the multitude of Freedom of Information releases by the Scottish Government.

“Following the release of results on August 4, the Deputy First Minister announced that all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and directed the SQA to re-issue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement, or SQA moderated teacher and lecturer estimates where these were higher.

“We have always been clear that lessons needed to be learned from this process, and that is why the Deputy First Minster acted swiftly to commission a rapid review of the process, which has subsequently reported. The government has accepted eight of the nine recommendations, and is already working to implement the necessary changes.”

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