John Swinney’s U-turn has wrecked the exam system for years to come – John McLellan
Education Secretary John Swinney can sit back through today’s motion of no confidence in him, safe in the knowledge that for all the opposition’s justified dismay, the Green Party has ensured his job is safe.
The system designed to maintain the credibility of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the exams it oversees, which he and the First Minister were robustly defending until the start of the week, has been duly trashed and thousands of disappointed school pupils will have their awards raised to the grades their teachers predicted.
Mr Swinney, with a reputation for being the SNP’s Mr Nice Guy, has bowed to the furious protests and has had to accept both he and his boss were wrong to defend the set-up and have apologised to all those adversely affected. There will be a review of the fiasco, with a fast-turnaround of just five weeks for an initial report.
And there is a long-term review of the whole Scottish qualifications system to come, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which runs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables, down which Scotland has been slipping for over a decade.
So it’s all in hand, these are unprecedented times, they won’t get everything right first time, and now the kids are alright. At least that’s what we are expected to swallow after Mr Swinney’s humiliating climbdown on Tuesday.
It was clear that very able pupils in poorer areas had been treated abysmally on the basis of the past performances of their school and it was right that every effort was made to address the injustices the moderation-with-no-examination approach created. The problem is that the simplistic means agreed with the Greens to save his skin has almost certainly wrecked the exam system for years to come.
Mr Swinney told the Scottish Parliament that “it cannot set an automatic precedent for future years,” but how does he ensure it doesn’t without being back in the same position next year? This is not so much a problem solved as another one created and the only way out of it will be to warn next year’s exam candidates not to expect so many passes, otherwise it risks a dramatic plunge in expected attainment levels.
He was at pains to claim this was a unique situation which would not be repeated, and while that may be true, if protecting the integrity of the system was paramount then allowing a 14.4 per cent increase in the Higher pass rate smashes the integrity he sought to defend. Faith will not be restored if, when the pass rates slump next year, it only creates another row as thousands of candidates look at this year’s performance and complain they have been unfairly penalised.
Going by this week’s U-turn, the system’s credibility is no longer a concern, and by failing to come up with a better framework, which could have included a more robust appeals process and resits, the entire secondary school programme is in tatters. Scotland already sits well down the OECD pecking order, so what happens when its report pinpoints falling standards because of low expectations, when those expectations have just been discarded?
A few years ago there was outcry because a maths exam was said to have been far tougher than previous years, and that will be magnified next year at all levels across all disciplines.
As many have commented in the past week, the First Minister asked for her achievements in education to be the measure of her administration’s success and put her best minister in charge four years ago. In that time Curriculum for Excellence has remained anything but, the PISA rankings have sunk and after the mess of blended learning and school reopening which needed another volte-face, the “safe pair of hands” has presided over another embarrassment.
This is not a crisis of just one cohort which can be fixed overnight, but a disaster for the whole system, borne out of the need for a quick fix back in March as lockdown was imposed and the need for another one now.
Can Mr Swinney really look teachers, school administrators, unions, the SQA and, most crucially of all, parents in the eye and say: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing?” It redefines untenable.
A short-term political stitch-up has saved Mr Swinney’s bacon today, and no doubt the First Minister will find him another “vital role” in the near future, but as far as education is concerned the bell has just rung.
Political oversight must be a factor in report on this fiasco
Knowing that higher education is on the edge of financial catastrophe, the influx of young people brandishing their newly upgraded higher certificates is a life-line for universities faced with the disappearance of their lucrative overseas students.
So Glasgow University’s Principal, Sir Anton Muscatelli, was quick out the blocks to praise the decision, saying it was “an opportunity for us to accept even more Scottish-domiciled students… with an increase of funding by the Scottish Government”. Sir Anton learnt a long time ago which side his bread was buttered.
It is to another professor, Mark Priestley of Stirling University, that Mr Swinney has turned for his “independent” review of the exams disaster and Prof Priestley will be able to call on the expertise of the university’s chancellor, one Jack McConnell, ex-maths teacher, ex-education minister and ex-First Minister, who described the SNP’s defence of the grade reductions as “breath-taking”.
This is the same Prof Priestley who just before the General Election took to social media to urge voters to “vote in the interests of the country, putting aside party loyalties”. Setting aside party loyalties was, according to the independent Prof Priestley, to vote SNP to stop the Conservatives.
It’s not exactly the best demonstration of impartiality, so are we to assume the remit will not cover political oversight and responsibility, despite Mr Swinney stating clearly that the SQA was operating under his instructions? If political decisions and pressure are ignored, the report will be a waste of time.