20.08.20


A "disasterclass".  This is perhaps one of the more printable descriptions of the UK Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson's handling of the A-level and GCSE exams fiasco in England over recent days.

Some may recall Mr Williamson’s previous stint in Cabinet as former Prime Minister, Theresa May’s surprise pick as Defence Secretary. During his short time in post, his ‘highlights package’ included telling Russia to “go away and shut up” before then being told to do much the same by Mrs May after leaks from the National Security Council were traced back to him.

Mr Williamson’s Lazarus-like return to Cabinet, this time in the Education brief, caught many by surprise. Less surprising has been Mr Williamson’s subsequent mishandling of the exams crisis. Yet even here he had the distinct advantage of having witnessed his counterpart in Scotland, John Swinney being put through the wringer over the same issue for a fortnight before.

Mr Swinney eventually survived a vote of no confidence last Thursday, after a last minute u-turn convinced Green MSPs to back him. Not so convincing, however, is the argument that this was Mr Swinney doing the right thing in difficult circumstances at the earliest opportunity.

Back in March and April, Mr Swinney was urged to publish the methodology to be used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in awarding grades. Assurances were offered, but transparency over the approach was denied.

Having been alerted to the fact that estimates submitted by teachers on behalf of their pupils were likely to be significantly above results in previous years, potentially as much as 20% higher, Mr Swinney took no action. Such was the Education Secretary’s unshakeable faith in the SQA algorithm.

When the results were then published, confirming that over 125,000 grades had been marked down, Mr Swinney insisted that nothing was wrong. Moreover, the downgrading of Scottish students was entirely ‘justified’, part of the correct approach to ‘protect the overall system’. Bizarrely, it was a playbook that Gavin Williamson faithfully adopted last week, despite having seen how it ended for Mr Swinney.

The First Minister was the first to realise that holding the line in the face of a wave of protest from Scottish students and their parents was unsustainable. She offered a fulsome apology, which was followed shortly after by one from Mr Swinney himself.

His decision to uphold the estimates submitted by teachers was almost certainly the least worst option in the circumstances. Nevertheless, it throws up the probability of the problem resurfacing when universities and colleges start considering admissions for next year. Either we will see a sizeable expansion in student numbers, which will inevitably prove expensive for the Scottish Government, or entry requirements will go up, sparking further protest.

In addressing parliament last week, Mr Swinney appeared genuinely apologetic for the anger and stress experienced by students and parents across Scotland. However, this was certainly not the first opportunity he had to avert the problem.

Moreover, it comes in the wake of a less than illustrious stint in the Education portfolio, on which Ms Sturgeon has asked to be judged. There was the mishandling of Named Person legislation that was finally lost in the courts; national standardised testing, where the government continues to ignore the will of parliament; international PISA results where Scotland’s performance has been faltering; and a flagship Education Bill that was abandoned before it even set sail.

Mr Swinney is a decent man and able Minister who has earned respect across the political spectrum. His recent track record, however, is less impressive. Furthermore, on the last occasion there was an exams fiasco on anything like this scale back in 2000, Mr Swinney was adamant in declaring to parliament that it was a resignation matter for the Minister responsible.

Two decades on and Mr Swinney has declined his own advice, but survived. As for his counterpart, Mr Williamson, based on some of the less printable comments from some in his own party, let alone the opposition, it may not be long before the current Prime Minister is required to ask him, once more, to “go away and shut up”.


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