John Swinney warned not to 'let history repeat itself' over 2021 exams cancellation

Education secretary John Swinney was warned he must not “let history repeat itself” around the handling of exam results in 2021 following the cancellation of Higher and Advanced Higher exams.

John Swinney was criticised for several aspects of the Scottish Government's handling of education
John Swinney was criticised for several aspects of the Scottish Government's handling of education

Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservative education spokesman, raised “disquiet and discomfort” of teachers being asked to "do the job of the SQA for them” and said “all the warning signs are there” for a troubled year in education in 2021.

The warnings came as the Scottish Government was defeated for a second time on a raft of education issues following a debate in Holyrood this afternoon.

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MSPs voted 59 to four – with 61 abstentions – in favour of the Scottish Conservative motion that reiterated calls for the Scottish Government to provide funding for the hiring of 2,000 new teachers, bring forward plans for free school meals, and to provide more support for teachers in regards to workload pressures around exams.

Mr Greene, who tabled the motion, said concerns remained about teacher workloads and called for detail on any plans for moderation of teacher estimates – the use of which eventually led to the U-turn on exam results from John Swinney in August.

He said: “I take no pleasure in saying that all the warning signs are there about next year. The education secretary must not let history repeat itself.”

The concerns were echoed by other opposition parties, including Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray, who said decisions made were last minute and “couched in confusion rather than clarity”.

He said: “These difficult decisions, of course, are unavoidable in the face of the pandemic, but their mishandling is not inevitable as the deputy first minister claims he does.

"Too many have been right decisions taken way too late or only after another handbrake turn, which is why we need those additional staff and routine staff testing now and not sometime in the future.

"And it is why we must get the 2021 awards scheme right, and that can only happen if the whole scheme of moderation and validation is published urgently and with complete transparency. We cannot have last year’s mistakes repeated again.”

Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens’ education spokesman who called for the cancellation of exams in May, said the Scottish Government needed to ensure teacher workload did not continue to rise and called for mass testing in place in all schools in January.

He said: “Parliament has already given the government clear instructions. We are now set to do so again. If they do not act, it will not just be Parliament, but teachers, pupils and parents who will hold them responsible next year.”

In response to concerns around exams, Mr Swinney said it was “ridiculous” to suggest assessment was outwith the role of a teacher.

He said: “I’ve never heard a more ridiculous remark in my life. Teachers are assessing the performance of pupils on a daily basis and anyone that suggests teachers are not involved in assessment knows absolutely nothing about the conduct of education in our society.”

The education secretary said funds for a teacher payment similar to the £500 NHS thank you scheme would be partly taken from unnecessary SQA marking fees, and reaffirmed the SNP’s commitment to deliver free school meals if they are re-elected in May’s Holyrood elections.

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