John Swinney, Scotland’s education secretary, has survived a no-confidence vote despite repeated accusations from opposition parties he is guilty of recklessly undermining trust in the education system.
Swinney, who is also deputy first minister in Nicola Sturgeon’s minority government, survived after the Scottish Green party MSPs threw their six votes behind the Scottish National party, defeating the no-confidence motion by 67 votes to 58.
Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said Swinney had to be held accountable for the Scottish exams results debacle, which led on Tuesday to the government reversing a decision to downgrade 124,000 exam results for 76,000 pupils.
The most significant downgrading affected children from some of Scotland’s poorest areas, leading to demonstrations by teenagers, including in central Glasgow and outside Holyrood.
Leonard said Labour’s no-confidence motion was not about retribution but about accountability to parliament. Ministers were appointed with the consent of the Scottish parliament, and parliament had the authority to withdraw that consent, he said.
The exams “catastrophe” was the latest in a line of Swinney policy failures, Leonard said, a criticism echoed by the Scottish Tories and Liberal Democrats, who backed Labour’s motion.
“Of course the restoration of pupils achievements [is] a victory for fairness and common sense [but] what it is not is a victory for the education secretary, who only jumped to action when his own job was on the line,” Leonard said.
Sturgeon, speaking for the government, said Swinney was one “of the most decent and dedicated people” in Scottish politics who had had the courage to admit publicly he had got it wrong and had rectified it.
Taking some of the blame for the crisis, Sturgeon urged MSPs to reject Labour’s “opportunistic” motion. “We took responsibility, we owned it and we fixed it. We have accepted the criticisms made of us,” she said.
Fiona Robertson, the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), told MSPs on Wednesday that the moderation system used last week was designed on Swinney’s instructions “to maintain standards over time, to ensure the credibility of qualifications for the benefit of learners”.
Swinney was given the original results on 30 July, five days before they were published. Robertson said the moderation process was blind to postcodes, and not based on which school children attended. The SQA would have changed any awards on appeal, she added, based on good evidence they had got them wrong.
Ruth Davidson, recently appointed Holyrood leader of the Scottish Tories, said that while Swinney may be a “diligent and capable” man, his handling of the exams crisis had been lamentable. Addressing Sturgeon, she said: “If this isn’t a resignation matter for one of her ministers, what is?”