Deliberate Mistake - Time To Go

Alex Massie makes a persuasive argument that John Swinney should resign over the Scottish Government's exams fiasco.

Yes, it was a 'mistake' but a deliberate mistake because the SNP were warned about the likely consequences of their plan and pressed ahead regardless.

Only days ago Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney were insisting the Scottish Government had done the right thing - now they are back peddling furiously because they don't have an overall majority in the Holyrood Parliament. 

Read Alex Massie's article via the link below to The Times.

Swinney should go — but he probably won’t

Everyone makes mistakes but the SNP were warned about their plans for grades and went ahead with them anyway

By Alex Massie - The Times

Putting politics aside, the question “Do you have confidence in John Swinney and his performance as Scotland’s education secretary?” is one to which the answer is now palpably, unavoidably, “No”. You cannot preside over a fiasco such as that orchestrated by the SQA in the allocation of this year’s Higher results and expect there to be no kind of reckoning. In a normal country, with normal politics, Mr Swinney would be toast. I will not be surprised if he survives.

Make no mistake, however, the decision to lower the grades received by thousands of schoolchildren was a ministerial choice, not the shady workings of unaccountable number-crunchers at the SQA. We have Nicola Sturgeon’s word for that: “Ministers asked the SQA to apply an approach that delivered a set of results that were comparable in terms of quality [sic] to last year.”

The SQA were only following orders. If heads must roll, they should be SNP heads. As recently as 72 hours ago, Ms Sturgeon still defended the SQA’s approach. Accepting teachers’ predictions of what their pupils might achieve would strip the system of its “credibility”. Given the choice between choosing to protect the system or pupils, the Scottish government chose the system. “Credible” results were more important than fair ones. In some subjects in some schools, failure rates increased 1,000 per cent, compared with a typical year. That is not a typo.

In many instances there was literally nothing pupils could do to achieve a mark commensurate with their ability. Once the government cancelled the exams — unlike, for example, in France where school-leavers sat their baccalaureate — and once the SQA declined to sample coursework, much of this mess became all but unavoidable. Those were choices, and mistakes, too.

Now the government has been forced to think again. This is not the only SNP U-turn in recent years, but it is perhaps the most significant. Mistakes do happen, blunders really are an unavoidable part of the political life and it does politicians no harm to be reminded, from time to time, of their fallibility.

Even so, this Scottish government asks for a mulligan. Mr Swinney declares he has “heard the anger of students who feel their hard work has been taken away from them” and he is “determined to address it”. Fair enough, you may think. But he then adds: “These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right.” Pre-owning a mistake does not actually absolve you of the responsibility for that mistake. Acknowledging that “mistakes will be made” does not mean these mistakes are of negligible, nugatory, importance. Shrugging your shoulders and admitting “It’s a fair cop” does not wipe away the crime. Ms Sturgeon talks about having all “the right intentions” but what use are these if they produce unjust outcomes?

And yet, despite this, responsibility for certain aspects of this shambles should be shared. Teacher judgment may be accurate on a broad basis, but at a more granular level it is often flawed. In a typical year, teachers’ estimates of their pupils’ likely Higher grades are only accurate in 44 percent of cases. Exams are a high-variance day of reckoning in which some pupils will salvage something from a year of indolence and others give an inadequate account of their real aptitude. Exams have an important role to play even if one of the things they measure is the ability to do exams.

And this year, there were other anomalies too. In 2019, teachers underestimated performance. Advance estimates suggested 24 per cent of Highers should be awarded an A grade; 28 per cent of Higher entries earned top marks. This year a whacking 39 per cent of Higher entries were predicted to result in an A grade. That seems worth a raised eyebrow and something rather more significant than potentially inflated overall pass-rates. Teacher complaints that they are trusted to mark exams and so should be trusted to appraise their own pupils too are not wholly convincing either. There is a difference between marking someone else’s homework and marking your own.

The Scottish government cannot claim it was not warned, because it was. In April, Iain Gray, Labour’s education spokesman, warned: “Pupils deserve to be graded based on their own merit, and should not be penalised for their schools’ past record.” Furthermore, he predicted: “This unfairness will hit pupils in deprived areas hardest.” So it proved.

In response, SNP politicians and their cheerleaders have asked us to look south of the border where a comparable shambles is brewing in GCSE and A level results. But what of it? That matters are just as poorly arranged in England does nothing to improve anything in Scotland. There again, this is a familiar SNP argument: so long as Scotland does marginally better than England everything is fine here.

Since the nationalists generally look upon the UK, and England in particular, as something akin to a failed state, comparisons with England may not be the winning argument nationalists think. Here we have it, however: “Scotland: doing marginally better than a failed state since 2007. Vote SNP.”

The poverty of aspiration grates just as much as does this insistence on measuring matters in narrow, relative terms. This insistence on judging matters relatively rather than by absolute standards is typical. Many Highers are scarcely fit for purpose. Higher English, for instance, is considered a junk qualification even by many of those who teach it. Instead of focusing on the absolute quality of Scottish education, we become tangled in arguments over minor variations in the pass-rate. We must try and do better than that.

Twenty years ago another SQA fiasco forced the resignation of the authority’s then chief executive and prompted a cabinet reshuffle in which Sam Galbraith was shunted from education to the environment brief. That infuriated the SNP’s education spokeswoman, a certain Nicola Sturgeon, who had demanded Galbraith “carry the can”. In 2000, the SQA blundered by sending many pupils the wrong results; this year the SQA has sent pupils the wrong results as a deliberate policy.

John Swinney carries responsibility for that and no amount of personal, uncontested, decency can compensate for his department’s failure. Of course he should go.

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