Scotland’s education secretary is facing a no-confidence vote in parliament after being forced to reinstate more than 120,000 Scottish exam grades following days of protests by pupils, teachers and opposition parties.
John Swinney made an emergency statement at Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon after a furious row last week when the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) announced it had downgraded 124,000 exam results, moderating the recommendations of school teachers in nearly a quarter of all awards.
Swinney told the Scottish parliament he was directing the SQA to reinstate all the downgraded resultsto those originally recommended by their teachers, and apologised to all those affected, including 76,000 pupils.
He said he had ordered an independent review into the handling of this year’s awards, overseen by Prof Mark Priestley, of Stirling University, and paid tribute to the pupils who had protested last weekend and those who had written to him to complain.
“It’s deeply regrettable we got this wrong, and I’m sorry about that,” he said.
Arguing his apology was not enough, Scottish Labour is pressing ahead with a confidence vote on Swinney, expected to be held on Thursday afternoon, after the Liberal Democrats announced they would join with the Scottish Conservatives in supporting it.
Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems said Swinney had ignored repeated cross-party warnings about the regrading process over the summer, had a track record of serious policy errors, and had dithered for a week before admitting the system had failed.
Iain Gray, Labour’s education spokesman, said reinstating downgraded results was “a victory for fairness and common sense and above all, a victory for those pupils who refused to take this injustice lying down, [but] how on earth did it come to this?”
Addressing Swinney, Gray added: “Why did he leave those young people twisting in the wind for a week, their hopes and ambitions in shreds?”
Jamie Greene, the Scottish Tories’ education spokesman, said Swinney’s 18-page statement to Holyrood was “the longest resignation speech in history, without a resignation”.
Swinney is expected to narrowly survive the vote after the Scottish Green party said its six MSPs would back the Scottish National party minority government, and praised Swinney for accepting its four recommendations on addressing the exams crisis.
Swinney said the government and SQA wanted to protect the integrity of the exam systems to ensure people had confidence this year’s awards were fair and comparable to previous years.
The recommended grades put forward by teachers would have meant significant inflation in grades this year, up by 10% for National 5s and 14% for Highers; those figures would have led to an unprecedented year-on-year improvement in performance, he said.
“In light of events, and listening to young people, we now accept that that concern, which isn’t without foundation, is outweighed by concern that young people, particularly from deprived backgrounds, will lose faith in the system and [feel that] ‘no matter how hard we work, the system is against us’.”
He said the government’s stance on defending the integrity of the exams system had failed to take account of the trauma and stress experienced by many families during the coronavirus lockdown, including the loss of close relatives to Covid-19.
The SQA would advise schools of all the revised awards by 21 August, issue fresh certificates afterwards, and provide the new grades to the university and college clearing body, Ucas, to ensure applicants could get the places offered.
Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens’ education spokesman, said it was essential the independent review announced by Swinney introduced permanent reforms to the way pupils were assessed.
“The unacceptable situation that arose this year can never be allowed to happen again,” Greer said. “Listening to pupils and teachers is essential in ensuring that. Of course, if they had been listened to in the first place, as we had called for, much of this fiasco could have been avoided.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, said on Monday her government now accepted it had made a serious error, having consistently defended the SQA’s handling of the debacle last week.
“Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge that we did not get this right,” she said. “I’m not prepared to have this year’s cohort of pupils, particularly from deprived communities, thinking that their hard work at school doesn’t count or the system is determined to be against them.”