No Confidence in John Swinney

The first week of August is always an emotional time for fourth, fifth and sixth year pupils in Scotland. The final few days of summer are rudely interrupted when exam results come around like a blunt object to remind those who had happily forgot all about things like school classes and national qualifications.

This year adds a whole other dimension to the emotions being felt by Scotland’s young people.

Kids here, like others across the world, have been out of school for many months and are now preparing to return to education, even though it’s unclear just what that return will look like. The Scottish Government had already attracted criticism for their failure to provide clarity on that count.

Councils and parents had been left wondering when it came to understanding when and how the schools would go back. Over a matter of days, the Scottish Government went from insisting children could only go back on some days for limited hours and with appropriate social distancing to expecting a full-time, as normal as normal, return. They failed the test of settling worries and providing reassurance in the most uncertain times. 

Of course, nobody can legitimately expect any government, tasked with unprecedented circumstances like these, to get everything right. People understand that mistakes are unavoidable. Nevertheless, different decisions and more clarity could have better addressed many of the concerns of parents across the country. 

Then results day arrived and things got much, much worse.

Once it became clear that the pandemic would put paid to the exam season, questions were consistently asked about the potential impact of the virus on children’s grades. Politicians of all colours were worried that the SQA’s assessment process would leave working class pupils worse off than their richer counterparts. 

Labour’s Education Spokesperson, Iain Gray, warned in May of a 

“concern that teacher awarded grades may be marked down, or up on the basis of a schools previous attainment, to the detriment of pupils from more deprived communities and the advantage of those attending schools where attainment is traditionally high.”

Swinney and the SQA ignored this.

At the same time, Green MSP Ross Greer said:

“I’m now convinced that this year’s qualification system is profoundly unfair, statistically flawed and will only widen the gap between students from the richest and poorest backgrounds.”

Many saw this coming. Why didn’t John Swinney or the SNP?

The pressure kept up: in June, Labour MSP James Kelly asked for

“a categoric assurance the grading process will not have a detrimental effect on the grades that they [pupils who stay in areas of social deprivation or attend schools whose performance has previous dipped] are awarded.” 

With what now seems to have been a misleading of parliament, John Swinney replied that he had been assured by the SQA that young people would be judged on their ability and talents alone. Instead, children across Scotland were let down by a Scottish Government that embraced a classist process which has left thousands of working class kids disadvantaged and disappointed.

When results landed last week, they confirmed opposition politicians’ warnings. Teacher estimates were disregarded in favour of a methodology that swapped individual characteristics and abilities for a school’s historic results. Thus, schools in well-off areas with consistently high grades were given the benefit of the doubt whilst kids attending in the most deprived areas had their school’s past low grades decide their future. The SNP effectively adopted the attainment gap as official government policy.

Around 120,000 marks have been downgraded from teacher estimates, with a disproportionate impact on the poorest. For instance, the Higher pass rate reduced by 15.2% for those within SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) 0-20%, but just 6.9% for those within SIMD 80-100%.

That is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. It is nothing less than a blow against the opportunities and chances of the poorest children in Scotland. It will have a life-long impact on working class pupils and their communities.

And this decision by the SQA – approved and initially defended by the SNP – to allow grades to be determined by a school’s past performance hits home.

I went to a school in one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas. It served me well and provided me the platform to go onto study and succeed at university. I had teachers who were committed educators that wanted the best for their pupils, and who armed us with the skills and mentality to shrug off the snide remarks and smug attitudes of kids from more affluent areas who looked down on our desire to do just as well as them. 

I am incredibly proud of where I came from, but I am very much aware that not many people with my background make it to where I am now.

This year, I graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a first class degree in LLB Honours Law with French. I’m still baffled by this and as one of my pals would say, have “working class Catholic guilt” about whether I am actually worthy of this success.

Quite frankly, however, if I had been graded under Swinney’s system, it’s likely that I would never have made it to university. My Mum would never have shed a tear at the son she raised as a single parent graduating from law school, and like so many others I would have accepted the mantra that “people like me just don’t do that sort of thing”, and settled for the restrictions that the class divide birthed me into. 

For too many kids in Scotland, that’s what this year’s SQA results look set to mean, and that’s appalling. Things did not need to be like this.

Education is supposed to be the SNP’s number one priority in government. That claim has come in for question a few times over the years, but seldom has it seemed more hollow. Nicola Sturgeon wanted to be judged on her educational record, but hasn’t allowed working class kids to be judged on theirs.

And if shunning working class pupils by failing to work for a properly fair, non-detrimental grading process wasn’t enough, the SNP’s immediate response to the fury that greeted the results was to doggedly defend them. Swinney had nothing to say to those who protested at their postcodes dictating their grades – instead he hailed the system as being “fair for all”. Sturgeon, on the other hand, attempted to navigate past the controversy at her daily coronavirus briefing  by telling journalists that in an alternate universe Doctor Who-style-Scotland where results hadn’t been downgraded, that they would be angrily asking why pass marks were so good. 

The SNP have also resorted to the age-old tactic of pointing to injustices in England; hoping kids who’ve had their hopes and dreams crushed by a piece of paper that fails to reflect their achievements and potential will find solace in the understanding that someone else might also be being let down. This tactic has seen plenty of use over the last 13 years, in the hope that ‘being marginally better than England under the Tories’ will be seen as enough. This time, however, people are angrier than they’ve ever been. It remains to be seen whether parents and pupils will be able to forgive the SNP for failing in their duty to better the life chances and opportunities of all of Scotland’s young people.

Over the weekend, John Swinney has decided that he will make a statement to Parliament this afternoon. Apparently, he now feels guilty and wants to make it all better. How nice of him.

Well, call me a cynic, but after days of silence only broken to tell working class kids that the process that failed them was fair, I don’t believe Swinney has actually had a change of heart.

What has changed, however, is that his job is now on the line. 

On Friday, Labour threatened a vote of no confidence in the Education Secretary. As a minority government, the SNP are reliant on the support of at least one other party (normally the Greens or the Tories, depending on the issue) – only when it looked likely that all opposition parties would back Labour’s motion did Swinney take an interest in making amends to Scotland’s working class pupils. Despite having no plan of action for the months leading up to exams, it is only now – days after the announcement of this confidence motion – that he has suddenly felt compelled to put things right. 

A minister who only acts when his political life is on the line is not one who sparks confidence in his capacity to do right by children affected by this fiasco.

With this in mind, I’m hoping that opposition parties will see past this desperate scrambling and vote with Labour to encourage Swinney’s removal, because no positive outcome for working class pupils can come with him in post. A sudden desire to fix his own mess, however welcome, is not enough of a justification for him to keep his job. Things need to be fixed, true enough – but he is not the person for that task.

In doing nothing to protect them and by allowing the past to determine their future, John Swinney has already cast his vote of no confidence in Scotland’s working class kids. The Scottish Parliament must do the same for him.