Education Secretary likely to survive no-confidence vote after exams U-turn

Pressure is mounting on Scotland’s Education Secretary but it seems likely he will survive a no-confidence vote.

John Swinney has been at the centre of a scandal over the moderation of grades for secondary school pupils submitted by teachers.

Downgraded results were overturned on Tuesday, with a no-confidence motion due to be debated on Thursday.

John Swinney being interviewed
John Swinney being interviewed

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, exams were cancelled and replaced with a system whereby teachers estimated the grades of young people, which were then moderated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

The new system was criticised when figures showed the pass rate for Higher pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland fell by 15.2% compared with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.

Scottish Labour then tabled a motion of no confidence in Mr Swinney over the scandal – garnering support from the Tories in Holyrood – with the Greens and Lib Dems saying they would withhold judgement until after the Education Secretary announced measures to address the problem.

On Tuesday, Mr Swinney announced he would be instructing the SQA to revoke downgraded marks and replace them with teacher estimates.

He also announced two reviews – one into the awards system as a whole and another into the issues this year – and an gave assurance that young people whose grades were moderated up would not be penalised.

Despite the statement, the Lib Dems said they will back for a no-confidence vote but the Greens – having called for all four measures to be put in place – have said they will not.

Providing there are no rebellions from the SNP benches, the support of the Scottish Greens will ensure Mr Swinney will survive the no-confidence motion.

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Addressing the announcement, which he called the “longest resignation speech in history, minus the resignation”, Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “Mr Swinney promised as an exam system which would disadvantage no-one.

“He promised dialogue, openness and fairness for all.

“But what do we get instead? A methodology clouded in secret, a lack of transparency and engagement, teachers were ignored, a postcode lottery which disgracefully penalised those from our toughest communities the most, a grading process which put the system ahead of the individual, and endless denial that there was a problem with any of this.”

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray described the statement as a “humiliating climbdown”, adding it was “very, very welcome”.

He said: “The restoration of pupils’ achievement based on the judgement of teachers who know them is a victory for fairness, for common sense and above all for those young people who refused to take this injustice lying down.”

Mr Gray called on the Education Secretary to take “full responsibility” and resign.


The Education Secretary has embraced a solution that he trashed last week. This no way to run an education system… Does John Swinney not understand that he is part of the problem, not the solution?

— Scottish Lib Dems (@scotlibdems) August 11, 2020

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie described the Education Secretary – who also serves as Deputy First Minister – as “part of the problem, not the solution”.

He then announced his party will vote for the motion.

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer welcomed the acceptance of the measures recommended to the Scottish Government from his party.

He added: “But let’s be clear, we should never have been here in the first place.”