John Swinney will announce a major school exams climbdown on Tuesday after a furious backlash over the downgrading of 124,000 results left the Education Secretary on the brink of losing his job.
The SNP will admit it “got it wrong” over the system used to grant this year’s National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher results, following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The system devised by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) saw thousands of pupils have their grades lowered from teacher recommendations by an arbitrary “moderation” process that relied heavily on past performance of their schools. It meant those from poorer backgrounds were significantly more likely to see crucial grades lowered than those from the richest areas.
Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Swinney spent much of last week defending the system. However, The Daily Telegraph understands that ministers are planning a u-turn after the Scottish Greens made clear that they were prepared to back a vote of no confidence in the Deputy First Minister this week, if significant changes were not agreed.
Scottish Government insiders have also privately conceded that the system gave rise to individual injustices which ministers have struggled to defend.
The Greens have issued a series of suggestions to Mr Swinney, outlining how their concerns could be addressed. If the party’s six MSPs backed a motion of no confidence in Mr Swinney, Ms Sturgeon’s most trusted minister, he would almost certainly have been forced to resign.
On #SQAResults I have heard the anger of students who feel their hard work has been taken away from them and I am determined to address it.
These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right first time.
— John Swinney (@JohnSwinney) August 9, 2020
While the “fix” which Mr Swinney will come up with remained unclear on Sunday, it could involve simply handing out awards in line with original teacher predictions, something Ms Sturgeon ruled out as recently as Thursday.
An alternative would be wide-ranging changes to the appeals system, which would include a “no detriment” stipulation that would ensure grades could only go up on review and automatic upgrades if a pupil had achieved a higher result in prelims.
Teenagers protested against the way they had been treated in Glasgow on Friday and an increasing number of SNP figures have begun speaking out about the unfairness of the SQA system.
Mr Swinney said: “I have heard the anger of students who feel their hard work has been taken away from them and I am determined to address it.
“These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right first time. Every student deserves a grade that reflects the work they have done, and that is what I want to achieve.”
He added: “I have been engaged in detailed discussions over the way forward and I know that we need to act and act quickly to give certainty to our young people. I will set out on Tuesday how we intend to achieve that.”
Scottish Labour confirmed that it still planned to push ahead with a no confidence vote in Mr Swinney. His climbdown over exams will be his second major u-turn this summer, after he also ordered schools to return full time from this week, following a backlash from parents.
His original plan would have seen pupils return to school only part time for an indefinite period, with some to have been in classes for as little as one day a week.
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “It’s taken John Swinney five days to even admit this fiasco is his responsibility. The threat of a no confidence motion has seen him finally accept the fact that he got this badly wrong.
“This is no way to run an education system. Young people will have been left twisting in the wind for a week by the time he explains what action will be taken. He needs to go.”
Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said he welcomed the admission from Mr Swinney that he had got his policy “badly wrong”.
He added: “The fairest, simplest solution is to trust the professional judgement of teachers, as the SQA and Government initially claimed they would before they adopted this awful postcode lottery system.”
Ms Sturgeon has previously ruled out awarding results in line with teacher judgements, saying this would have resulted in widespread grade inflation on previous years and that this would have meant results were not credible. Even after the moderation process, passes are up significantly last year.
However, Alex Neil, the SNP backbencher and former Health Secretary, said it was “unforgivable” that pupils from poorer areas had seen grades lowered “on the altar of a manufactured algorithm prepared in secret.”
Ms Sturgeon has previously urged those who had results downgraded to appeal, but there are fears that the system could be swamped. This would place an additional burden on teachers who judge appeals, at a time they are already under pressure with the return of children to school from Tuesday.
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS teachers union, warned yesterday that he still held significant concerns over safety of schools returning and, for the first time, raised the prospect of industrial action if these are not addressed. The union is calling for infection control measures and safety guidelines to be strengthened.
He said: “If there is evidence a school or a council isn’t doing what they should – implementing the guidelines properly – that could become a dispute. If we couldn’t get it fixed, we would be asking members whether they would support a safety strike to get a resolution.”