John Swinney is facing a fight to keep his job after he presided over a results day “shambles” that saw 124,000 grades arbitrarily lowered.
Scottish Labour confirmed last night that it would table a vote of no confidence in the Education Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon's most senior minister, next week, which he is not guaranteed to survive. All of Holyrood’s opposition parties are highly critical of this year’s examination process.
Teenagers protested on Friday in Glasgow about how they had been treated, with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) using a controversial formula to “moderate” teacher recommendations, which were provided following the cancellation of this year's exams due to coronavirus.
Data published by the quango shows those from deprived areas were far more likely to see their Highers grades lowered than those from the richest parts of Scotland, leading students to complain that they were discriminated against based on their postcode.
Pressure mounted after Labour published a leaked SQA document which appeared to show that students appealing grades, who are not classed as a “priority” due to having university offers, would not find out if they had been successful until next May.
In response, the SQA said the date was “meaningless” and had been uploaded to a website for technical reasons, but refused to say when all pupils would receive results of appeals. Insiders said while they were unable to give a firm date, the process was likely to be completed this year.
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “The SQA created this mess and the SNP government has entrusted them to sort it out - but all we have seen is shambles upon shambles upon shambles.
“We cannot have confidence in John Swinney and the SQA to run a credible appeals system. The only way out of this mess now is for Scottish Government to return to trusting teachers' judgments.
“It is now clear that John Swinney has completely lost control of the SQA and the exam process, and he needs to go. We will seek to lay a motion to that effect and approach colleagues across parliament for their support."
The Scottish Conservatives confirmed they would support the motion of no confidence in Mr Swinney. Liberal Democrat MSPs were in discussions to decide on their response on Friday night, but hours earlier, the party had dubbed Nicola Sturgeon a “grade robber” and backed pupil protests.
With the SNP short of an overall majority, his survival is likely to hinge on six Scottish Green MSPs. Ross Greer, the party’s education spokesman, has been an outspoken critic of the exams process.
Sources within the Greens said last night that they would expect to see major concessions from Mr Swinney if they are to support him in the confidence vote.
Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said: “The Scottish Conservatives will support a motion of no confidence against the Education Secretary.
“Public confidence in Mr Swinney’s ability to handle his brief, particularly his response to the current SQA fiasco, has hit rock bottom.”
While there would be no legal obligation on Mr Swinney to resign if he loses the vote, written Holyrood convention dictates that he would be "expected to resign".
At her press briefing, Ms Sturgeon again urged students to appeal their results if they were unhappy with them. The First Minister has been accused of hypocrisy after she admitted she may have been among protesters in George Square, had her policy affected her when she was at school. Mr Swinney had already been due to give a Holyrood statement next week.
This is taking a genuinely concerning and important issue and turning it into a political football. Shows zero commitment to seeking an agreed resolution. More interested in potentially getting a scalp. pic.twitter.com/JiWRTdwHKz— Mhairi Hunter (@MhairiHunter) August 7, 2020
She reiterated that the system had been put in place as if grades had simply been awarded in line with teacher recommendations, awards would have risen drastically on previous years, which would have lessened the credibility of results. She said: “If we get a situation where lots of appeals are awarded then it will show that the process has worked as intended.
“This is the part of the process we always intended would be about ensuring individual injustices could be identified and rectified.”
The SQA strongly denied that there would be a nine month wait for grades. Priority appeals will be issued by September 4, with others to be processed “as quickly as possible”.
Referring to the leaked document suggesting the process would run until May, a spokesman said: “This was a meaningless date set as part of a technical requirement to allow the system to go live."
A spokesman for Ms Sturgeon said: "Governments across the UK – and indeed across the world – have had to adapt to a near impossible situation imposed on exam systems by the global pandemic.
“The fact is, no alternative system to the exam diet would leave everybody satisfied, which is perhaps why Labour in Scotland have not even suggested one. Indeed, reports suggest that a similar process to that used by the SQA will lead to similar - or perhaps greater - proportions of pupils being downgraded in Labour-run Wales, when results are published shortly.
“John Swinney is absolutely committed to listening to the concerns of those who feel let down by this week’s results. In the meantime, it is important that the appeals process is allowed to proceed.”