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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, August 13, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 13 August 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Motion of No Confidence, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Motion of No Confidence

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22392, in the name of Iain Gray, on a motion of no confidence.


The vote of no confidence in the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—the Deputy First Minister—this afternoon is not about personalities, and it is not about retribution for what happened last week with the Scottish Qualifications Authority shambles. It is about the principles of democracy, and of the accountability of the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliament. It is about this being a time of reckoning for a long line of failures, but more important is that it is about the future—the future of our schools, pupils and Scottish education.

The basis of a minister’s mandate is clear; the ministerial code sets it out. It says that

“The First Minister is responsible for the overall organisation of the Government ... and appointments”

and that

“Ministerial appointments are subject to approval by Her Majesty.”

It also says that

“Before seeking approval, the First Minister must first secure the agreement of the Parliament. ”

It is the agreement of the Parliament that we wish to withdraw.

The responsibility of individual ministers for their own conduct and that of their departments lies at the very heart of an accountable and democratic Parliamentary Government. We do not accept, under clause 1.6 of the ministerial code, that the cabinet secretary for education conducted himself in line with that code. He has failed in justifying, to this Parliament and to the Scottish people, his actions with respect to the SQA results fiasco. As a result, Mr Swinney no longer commands the confidence of the chamber.

At the end of last week, we reviewed the SQA results fiasco, following thousands of calls, e-mails and messages from anxious and increasingly angry young people, and from their parents and teachers. Having reviewed it, we decided that we had no choice but to lodge the motion of no confidence. That was not a decision that we took lightly: motions of no confidence have been lodged only sparingly in the history of this Parliament.

Of course, the restoration of pupils’ achievements based on the assessment of teachers who know them and—more important—who know their standard of work inside out, is a victory for fairness and common sense and is, above all, a victory for all those young people who refused to take that injustice lying down.

It is not a victory for the education secretary, who jumped to action only when his own job was on the line. Some members of the Scottish Parliament might think that that means that the cabinet secretary is fit to continue in office. However, many others believe that it is all the more reason why he must go.

Only yesterday, the head of the SQA, Fiona Robertson, told the Education and Skills Committee that although she regrets the experience that some pupils have had, the SQA had received a

“commission from the Scottish Government”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 12 August 2020; c 30.]

that it had done its

“very best to deliver”.—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 12 August 2020; c 12.]

Therefore, the SQA clearly believes that responsibility for the results fiasco falls on Mr Swinney.

However, that begs so many questions about how it came to this. Perhaps the education secretary can explain why he did not listen in April, May, June and July to warnings saying that exactly what did happen was what was going to happen, and why he did not act immediately when it happened. The pupils and people of Scotland deserve to be told what went wrong. A minister tried to explain, the First Minister apologised and the cabinet secretary was forced to take remedial action.

However, the SQA exam fiasco is just the latest catastrophe in Mr Swinney’s tenure in education, in which we have seen a catalogue of catastrophes: failure to meet the promised expansion of childcare; failure, still, to get resources to councils for the reopening of schools; and the U-turn on getting schools back full time. His time in education has included a series of other poor decisions: narrowing of subject choices, refusal to scrap primary 1 testing, ditching of his education bill, and failing of kids with additional support needs.

Education is not just a Government brief, and schooling is not just a process that young people must go through in advance of going out into the world of work. At its core, education is a liberating process that empowers our young people to strike out and forge the lives that they want to lead. At its best, our education system allows the aspirations of pupils to be realised, and it acts as a dynamo for social mobility, so I am pleased that 75,000 young people who had their results downgraded will now receive the marks that were recommended by their teachers.

However, we cannot simply turn the page. We cannot ignore the damage that has been done to those young people, the hurt that is felt following months of turmoil and anxiety, the distress from dreams disappearing, and the mental anguish that has been felt by them and their families.

John Swinney showed us that he had no confidence in Scotland’s schools, students or teachers. It is this Parliament’s duty to those schools, students and teachers to say that we have no confidence in him to sort out this mess, which he has created.

For those reasons, I move the motion of no confidence in the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and I ask him to go.

I move,

That the Parliament has no confidence in the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, in light of his mismanagement of schools’ education and, in particular, of this year’s awarding of grades to school pupils and the unfairness of the system applied by the SQA.


I oppose the motion and express my confidence in one of the most decent and dedicated people in Scottish politics. John Swinney is someone who works hard to fulfil his responsibilities each and every single day. When he gets something wrong, he has the humility to say so and to put it right. In my book, that is a strength.

The past few days have been more difficult than they should ever have been for many young people in Scotland. I know that, and I am sorry—and so is John Swinney. The situation created by Covid is unprecedented in the history of Scottish examinations. In a unique set of circumstances, we took decisions that we considered, on balance, to be the right ones. Those decisions were, as has been commented on by others, broadly the same decisions that have been reached by different Governments of different party colours in England and in Wales. I am not going to dwell on that point today, but it speaks volumes about the motivations and priorities of the Opposition in this chamber.

In Scotland, 25 per cent of grades were downgraded. The Scottish Government acknowledged the unfairness of that, we apologised and we put it right and yet the Opposition demands a resignation. In England, closer to 40 per cent of grades have been downgraded and, as yet, no comprehensive solution has been offered. However, from the Conservatives, we have weasel words and Labour, which lodged this motion before even waiting to listen to the solution, is today calling for the same solution at United Kingdom level as has been put forward in Scotland, rather than for a ministerial resignation. Will Mr Gray tell us why that is the case?

Will the First Minister acknowledge that the Government in Wales moved to correct the exam results before they were issued to the young people? Does she not wish that Mr Swinney had done that too?

I think that I am correct in saying that more than 40 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, but my question was why is Scottish Labour calling for something in Scotland that its UK counterparts are not. That proves that, for Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, this is not about principle—it is simply about politics. We own our mistakes, and so should they. I readily acknowledge that we focused too much on the system and not enough on individuals. A desire to avoid something that would look like grade inflation meant that students lost out on grades that their teachers believed they deserved. The statistical model that was used meant that more students were downgraded in poorer areas than in other parts of Scotland. That was wrong, which is why the Deputy First Minister set out a solution on Tuesday and restored the grades of young people across the country—[Interruption.] I will not take an intervention just now.

To those who say—and who will quote us in support of this view—that the awards are now too generous, I say that, over the past week, I have reflected hard on that point and come to this conclusion, and I regret that I did not come to it more quickly. Given the enormous Covid disadvantage that young people have suffered in this unique—I hope—year, levelling the playing field a bit in their favour cannot be, and is not, a bad thing.

Neither John Swinney nor I have any desire to hide from the fact that we initially got it wrong. We acted from good intentions, but we got it wrong. In putting it right, we have listened and we have learned. We have listened to parents and teachers—and indeed, we have listened to parties in this Parliament more than they have been prepared to listen to anyone else—but most of all we have listened to young people. They have been impressive, passionate and persuasive advocates for changing course.

The curriculum for excellence aims to ensure that all our young people have four core capacities. It asks that they become confident individuals, responsible citizens, successful learners and effective contributors. Last week, we were reminded again of how many of our young people have all those capacities in abundance. Their response has shown that teachers across the country, and our education system as a whole, are doing a huge amount right. They are creating very many very impressive young people.

We—all of us—should think about what lesson we want to take from all of this. The Government made the wrong judgment, but we listened to those who raised their concerns, and we acted. We took responsibility, we owned it and we fixed it. We have not hidden, we have not tried to blame anyone else and we have not objected to the criticisms that have been made of us.

I accept that the vote in the chamber today will probably go along party lines—

Will the member take an intervention?

I will take a final intervention, if I have time, to hear whether anyone in the Scottish Conservatives can explain the dissonance between their position here in Scotland and their position in respect of the rest of the UK.

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have both apologised to pupils, parents and teachers, but has the Deputy First Minister apologised to the First Minister and offered her his resignation?

The Deputy First Minister is probably the most honourable individual I have ever known in my life, which is perhaps something that the member finds difficult to understand.

I will conclude. For those who are watching outside the chamber, one of the questions that today’s motion throws up is this: what exactly do we want our politics to look like? Fundamentally, my view is that making mistakes in unique circumstances, acknowledging those mistakes and fixing them is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of a system that works and a minister who, when a mistake is made, takes the right approach.

In the midst of a global pandemic, neither our education system nor our politics will be made better by a resignation over a mistake that has been corrected. I hope that it is the fact that, in their hearts, they know that to be true, rather than sheer hypocrisy, that explains why none of the Opposition parties is calling for the resignations of their own colleagues in other parts of the UK that are facing even bigger problems.

For all those reasons, I whole-heartedly oppose today’s opportunistic motion.


John Swinney has been an excellent servant to his party and a huge contributor to this Parliament. There is no reading of post-devolution politics in which he is not a significant figure. For my own part, I studied many of the ways in which he professionalised the Scottish National Party as leader. Although the 2003 election did not reap dividends for him, his management set up his party to win in 2007. When Nicola Sturgeon went into her first Scottish election as leader claiming that education would be the “defining mission” of her Government, it was natural that she turned to her diligent and capable deputy to deliver.

It should give nobody who cares about either the future of your young people or the importance of this Parliament any pleasure to speak in today’s debate, but that displeasure does not negate the fact that the education secretary’s failings are so great, and the damage to his authority so fatal, that he simply has to go.

This is about more than just results day itself, as important as it was. This is about the repeated warnings from Opposition members that went unheeded for months; it is about the recommendations from the Education and Skills Committee back in May about the transparency of methodology that was roundly rejected; it is about the fact that John Swinney issued the parameters to the SQA, and the SQA simply fulfilled the brief that it was given; it is about the fact that the education secretary had the results for five days before they were published and could see the car crash that was coming, but did not act.

When faced with thousands of students whose dreams were dashed, he dug in and defended the system over the pupils—a system that entrenched educational inequality, meaning that, for some, there was literally nothing that they could do to succeed. When presented with clear analysis showing that children from the most deprived areas were hit more than twice as hard as their more affluent counterparts, he went on the nightly television news to deny it, saying that the data

“does not bear this out”,

even though that is exactly what the data did.

It was only after Opposition parties raised the issue of a vote of no confidence that the Government’s position radically changed. Suddenly, instead of digging in, there was an apology and a total U-turn—a course of action that was described just days before as having “a real credibility issue” was now the way to fix an inadvertent mistake. As high as the regard in which people across the chamber hold John Swinney may be, the timeline of a threat of no confidence and the total U-turn that transpired open the education secretary to accusations that he cared more about his own job than he did about our children’s futures.

Today’s motion is ostensibly about the education secretary, but it is actually as much about the First Minister as it is about John Swinney. The scale of this failure is of such a degree that it prompts the question: if this is not a resignation matter for one of her ministers, what is?

There was a Nicola Sturgeon elected to the Parliament in 1999 who would have understood that ministerial accountability does not just mean fronting up a U-turn; it means taking ultimate responsibility for failings in your brief. If those failings include signing off a major operation of work that proves so utterly unfit for purpose that it has to be dismantled after thousands of schoolchildren have been left frightened for their future, that means falling on your sword.

Of course, not all transgressions require resignation, and all politicians call far too readily for the heads of their opponents, but for parliamentary responsibility—or even natural justice—to work, the sanction must fit the scale of the failure. Nicola Sturgeon understood that in 2000, when she called for Sam Galbraith’s job after a much smaller SQA exam issue, just as she understood in 2010 that she needed to make a full apology to Parliament for lobbying a court in defence of a fraudster, even when senior members of her own party were urging her to tough it out. There was enough of that Nicola Sturgeon left in 2018, when she withdrew Gillian Martin’s name from ministerial confirmation after historic blog posts came to light. The question is this: where is that Nicola Sturgeon now? How is it that she cannot see what is obvious, which is that this failure is so great that it demands a resignation.

That John Swinney will survive is not in doubt, due to a pact with the Greens, but that parliamentary responsibility is forever damaged by his clinging on is not in doubt either. There was once a Nicola Sturgeon who would have recognised that.

I support the motion.


I am sure that we could all have foreseen the broad points that were made by Richard Leonard and Ruth Davidson in their opening speeches, and I have prepared some remarks in response to that line of argument.

Before we get to that, I should say that I am not planning on any big build-up to a point that everyone is well aware of. The Greens will, of course, oppose the motion. Before I get to the partisan manoeuvres defining the debate, I want to explain why that is.

I spent four months warning that a system was being designed that not only would treat young people like data points rather than as individual learners, but would be fundamentally unjust to working-class people and those in the most deprived communities in particular. I challenged the education secretary and the SQA in Parliament, as did Patrick Harvie; I lodged freedom of information requests; I wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, once the commissioner’s office became involved; and my team and I published our own analysis of the schools that were most likely to be disadvantaged by the system.

We were certainly not the only ones to raise those concerns—Iain Gray did an excellent job raising them, too. However, in Parliament, the Greens have consistently led on the issue, just as we have led on the issue of the assessment system in Scotland and the organisational culture of the SQA being fundamentally broken.

When the results arrived last week, we took no pleasure in being vindicated. I am sure that I was not the only one who spent Monday evening dearly wishing that I would be proved dramatically wrong the next morning, but none of us was. For days, my inbox was flooded with stories from pupils, from parents and particularly from teachers who were heartbroken and outraged about what had happened.

I hope that we were all inspired to witness the revolt of thousands of young people and their supporters, who took to the streets, launched petitions, spoke to the media and lobbied all of us to have the results undone. Without their resistance, I do not think that the reversal would have been announced on Tuesday.

In one letter that I received, which was also sent to the education secretary, a parent told me about how their child had been presented with an award for maths by none other than John Swinney himself. The pupil had achieved more than 90 per cent in their national 5 and higher and was clearly on track to getting an A at advanced higher, but was devastated to be given a D by the SQA.

The moderation system was fundamentally designed to maintain the apparent credibility of grades at an aggregate national level. It was not designed, regardless of the intentions of its designers, to award individual young people the grades that they deserved. For that reason alone, it should have never been put into operation, but it was, and last week we saw the results. The question was what the Parliament was going to do about them.

Labour’s initial response was visceral but ultimately vague condemnation, leading the Daily Record’s political editor to suggest that the Greens, rather than the Labour Party, were leading the Opposition. What power Paul Hutcheon turns out to have over the Labour Party—as an almost immediate response to his comments, Labour dropped the nuclear option of the motion of no confidence.

From that moment, every Opposition party had the same choice: negotiate a solution with the Government, or simply gun for the education secretary. Any one party could have secured a fix for 75,000 young people in exchange for their support. Of course, only the Greens were interested in fixing the problem; others simply saw a political opportunity—one that, given today’s events elsewhere in the UK, takes on a particularly hypocritical tone.

Our MSPs agreed that we would support a motion of no confidence, unless the Government agreed to implement our proposed solutions immediately. The solutions were: the restoration of all 124,000 downgraded results to the level estimated by teachers; the preservation of 9,000 upgraded results, given that it would be a bit perverse to penalise those young people a week later; an independent review into how the situation happened, despite months of warnings, which will consider issues raised around transparency and scrutiny; and a second longer-term review of the exams and assessment system. As everyone is now aware, the Government chose to deliver on those demands.

The Greens’ only priority was restoring the grades of 75,000 young people who had been treated so unjustly. That has been achieved.

I find it entertaining that the Tories in particular are squealing in outrage once again at a terrible error made by the Scottish Government and thus, as always, ducking the issue of their own party doing the same thing on an immeasurably worse scale in this country’s other Government. For the Tories to be calling for John Swinney’s resignation but apparently having full confidence in the disgraced former defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, really takes some brass neck.

The stories from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are just as heartbreaking as those that we heard here.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am winding up, but I will take the intervention, if there is time in hand, Presiding Officer.


There is a difference. Under the reasonable person test that the SNP likes to use, any reasonable person would understand that there is a difference between trying to mitigate and put things right before examination scripts are issued and spending a week digging in after it has happened and all the rest of it. [Interruption.]

In addendum to that, I think that the member has misunderstood what the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has said. [Interruption.] He has come out strongly to say, just as he said last week, irrespective of whether it is south or north of the border, pupils should be put above the system. [Interruption.]

Order, please. Let us hear the member.

Do not misrepresent his words—our leader has been very strong.

I hope that I will get the time back for that, Presiding Officer.

Ruth Davidson is trying to give the impression that Gavin Williamson saw the problem that was coming and acted to fix it, but he did not. Gavin Williamson was making statements to the press saying that any attempt to fix the issue would somehow give young people grades that they did not actually deserve. What has come about in England today is demonstrably worse than what happened here. It is the same error in principle but it is measurably, proportionately and quantifiably worse than what happened in Scotland.

No Government in the United Kingdom is free from blame in this entirely foreseeable and avoidable debacle. The difference so far in Scotland is that not only did the Greens use our position to ensure that the problem was fixed, but the First Minister and the education secretary have both held up their hands and apologised. That does not undo the damage—they have a long way to go before that is the case—but if there is one thing that I cannot stand in politics, it is hypocrisy. Looking around at the two-faced positions of other parties in the Parliament today, I see more of that hypocrisy than a sincere interest in the best interests of our young people, and the Greens will have nothing to do with it.


I like and respect John Swinney. He has been a good public servant over decades, for his party and for the Government. He is respectful of us and often polite and engaging in debate. However, I am afraid to say that he is losing the confidence of thousands of teachers, lecturers, pupils, students, staff and parents.

The debate is not just about us; it is about the organisation that John Swinney leads. It is right to have a Government that listens and responds and is agile rather than stubborn and intransigent. However, when the policy direction is constantly changing in an erratic and uncontrolled fashion, that has a debilitating effect on that organisation. The organisation does not know what to expect next and loses confidence in the leadership.

That has been happening to John Swinney for years now. The issue is not just about the exams. The proposed education bill was meant to be a signature piece of legislation and was deemed essential, but it was later abandoned. The curriculum for excellence, an initiative that had political buy-in from beyond the Government, was so poorly implemented that it has been diminished. We have pulled out of international tables and abandoned surveys in favour of individual testing that is more akin to the kind of thing that Margaret Thatcher would have brought in. That was a dramatically different direction from when John Swinney led his party in opposition. The decision to ditch blended learning as the preferred option just before the summer recess left teachers and staff flummoxed and angry that they had wasted so much time readying schools.

Then we had the exams, which were the trigger for today’s debate. Other members have rightly pointed to the repeated warnings and the alternative options that have been offered and that were rejected by the education secretary. Members have also rightly pointed to the distress and anxiety that students and their families and teachers have suffered. However, for me, two factors are even more significant. First, John Swinney told the Parliament this week that he was first aware of the impending issue only a week before the results were published. In this exceptional year, when exams were cancelled and the system was turned on its head, he made himself aware only one week before the results came out. That he does not see that as a problem is a major error of judgment in itself. He should have asked about the issue before he was presented with the results and the point of no return had passed.

The second factor is even more recent. When the results were published, he held them to be a success and rubbished any other process as not credible, yet he has now embraced an alternative that he has previously condemned. How can he be responsible for that alternative and for an education system that he undermined so recklessly just the previous week?

However, it is the overall performance of our education system that most affects John Swinney’s leadership position. Scotland’s education system was among the best. International measures judge it now as average. His friends and colleagues will stand with him, but John Swinney knows in his quieter moments that he should go. I urge him to go today.

We turn to the open debate. I call Johann Lamont, to be followed by Angela Constance.


Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I thank members for the warm welcome.

My time is brief, but it is important to note some basic truths at the outset. First, it is the right and duty of the Parliament to hold ministers to account—full stop. Secondly, we know—and it is silly to pretend otherwise—that it was only when the cabinet secretary had to contemplate his own future, rather than that of young people across Scotland, that he took action. We know that the cabinet secretary has been guilty of a monumental failure of judgment.

I note that the Scottish Government has deployed its usual, well-tested tactic when it is under pressure: get the Greens onside and denigrate the motives of everyone else. That usual approach might give comfort to Government party back benchers, although I trust that it gives some of the Greens pause for thought, but such an approach to dealing with the huge issues that we face is unedifying and not worthy of good government. We deserve better than people impugning our motives when we raise concerns about what the Government is doing.

However, I turn to the issue. It is worth noting that the Government and the SQA do not really accept that there has been a problem with the system. Fiona Robertson said yesterday that she was sorry if young people felt that they were discriminated against. Young people did not feel that they were discriminated against; they were discriminated against, systematically and deliberately. The cabinet secretary continues to assert that young people from deprived backgrounds were not disadvantaged. However, for all the weaselly stat-mining that the cabinet secretary calls in his aid, it is true that they were discriminated against, and he cannot change that.

This is not a one-off. The cabinet secretary has form for attacking critics as gloom-mongers and wanting to talk teachers and students down, whether the issue is multilevel teaching, standardised testing, increased limits on subject choices, limits on the number of courses taken or access to support for those with additional support needs—all issues that disproportionately affect poor children. All too often, he has chosen belligerence rather than trying that listening thing and paying attention. In truth, this SQA fiasco is not first base; it is the final straw.

Faced with these unprecedented times, with young people facing unprecedented challenges, what did the cabinet secretary do? He signed off on a process that presumed that young people in poor areas had their grades artificially inflated and that those in the least-deprived areas did not. He signed off on a process that could not even conceive of the notion that young people could perform way beyond the past experience of their schools. We therefore saw a system where young people, despite their circumstances and the many challenges of learning in a school where many of their peers might be dealing with serious problems, were doing exceptionally well, only to discover that the existence of the challenges that they had overcome was cited as a cause to pull them back down. There was nothing that they could do about that—absolutely nothing.

John Swinney and the SQA had months to test the consequences of their system, and utterly failed. He saw in cold print what that meant and he went ahead anyway. What on earth was he thinking? That is why I have no confidence in the cabinet secretary. The job of the education secretary must, above all else, be focused on understanding the power of education and its capacity to liberate potential, and that Government choices can entrench inequality or can be harnessed to eradicate it. In these times, more than ever, we need an education secretary who understands inequality and challenges assumptions about what constitutes talent, ability and fairness, rather than reinforcing those assumptions in action. I believe that, over a number of years, John Swinney has shown himself to be incapable of understanding the fundamental task of education to eradicate inequality. This scandal confirms it, and he should go.


No one in politics is infallible, and high office, like elected office, is a privilege, not a right. I will put on record why I believe that John Swinney should continue as education secretary and finish the work that he has started.

I have had the privilege of having had six posts in government. For about three years, I served as a junior minister to John Swinney and to Michael Russell when he was education secretary, and I succeeded Mr Russell into that post, so I know that the job that John Swinney does on behalf of the nation is one of the hardest jobs in government. Because it has been mentioned recently, I read the transcript of the motion of no confidence debate that took place regarding the then Labour education secretary almost 20 years ago. I was not here at the time, but I concede that it is not comfortable reading. However, it exemplifies exactly why the then SNP parliamentary group was sitting in opposition. Our approach then did not work for the same reason that Labour’s approach is not working now.

Despite the distress of young people and the anguish of their parents, in my experience, overwhelmingly what they have sought is not revenge but a resolution. They wanted the education secretary to take responsibility and sort it out, and that is exactly what he has done—and in short order.

What he did not do was to point the finger or scapegoat others because, whether in good times or bad, fair weather or foul, John Swinney is a man of integrity. Right now, I can assure members that the biggest critic of John Swinney is not sitting on the Labour benches or the Conservative benches—it is the man himself.

The personal testimony and courage of affected young people resulted in the cabinet secretary changing his mind. That is not a badge of shame; it is strength of character. He is a man with backbone. Politicians may scream “U-turn!” but, in the real world, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, business people and even young people understand that, even with the best of intentions, mistakes are made.

What matters most is for politicians to really listen and, when they say sorry, to mean it and—most importantly—to back up their words with deeds. That is what people have seen and heard from Mr Swinney this week: a man who can put himself into the shoes of others and who conscientiously engages and wrestles with the difficult decisions.

I support his conclusion that our overriding consideration is that we cannot and must not risk our young people—particularly those from working class backgrounds like mine—losing their faith in our education system and being left behind, believing that no matter how hard they work, the system is against them.

Although exam outcomes in other parts of the UK might be informative and might be of interest to some, they have never for me been the barometer of performance for what I expect of this Government—nor indeed are they a defence for the Scottish Government. If Douglas Ross and the Tories had even a tenth of the integrity of our Deputy First Minister, my word, they would be in a different place today.

This year has been truly unprecedented, but some of the decisions that have had to be taken in education and across Government could lead to more lasting and radical change. In my view, Mr Swinney—a man of unwavering integrity and intelligence—should finish what he has started.


Over the many years for which I have known John Swinney, and especially when I was privileged to be shadowing in the education portfolio, he has consistently said that he wants to be judged by the evidence: evidence about the outcomes for young people and evidence presented by teachers who, he rightly argued, are the people best placed to know their pupils. It is to that evidence that I now turn.

On 21 April, John Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland that it was not a case of saying that

“how a school did in the past determines how it does today”,

yet the very next day that statement was countermanded by the SQA.

On 1 May, Fiona Robertson of the SQA said:

“An estimated grade is not just the result of one prelim, exam or project”

but is one that is

“based on all activities across the year.” —[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 1 May 2020; c 3.]

That meant, to most teachers, that they could use internal standardised assessments to assist them in making estimates for individual pupils, but they were also told by the SQA that it would take no responsibility for looking at those standardised assessments. That created confusion, something that teachers raised when they spoke to the Education and Skills Committee.

Thirdly, the SQA said:

“we can enter into a professional dialogue with a school if the shape, distribution or volume of attainment at that school looks very different this year ... from how it has looked historically.” —[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 1 May 2020; c 16.]

However, the committee has no idea whether that happened or how many schools were asked about any anomalies.

There are bigger issues here too. This fiasco has uncovered several weaknesses in the system over which John Swinney has presided since he took on the education brief in 2016.

On 23 November 2016, in her annual session with the Education and Skills Committee, Dr Janet Brown, the previous chief executive of the SQA, admitted that there had been some errors in SQA marking. Those errors were picked up relatively quickly, but brought some transparency issues into the open. She was asked to produce the minutes of meetings relating to how grade boundaries had been decided. Those minutes never appeared, only reports into each subject area. In other words, it was never clear who was taking decisions, or on what basis.

At the same time, teachers raised other concerns about being kept in the dark about marking standards. As I said on Tuesday, the SQA does not permit the return of exam scripts to pupils and teachers, unlike in every other UK jurisdiction or in many other nations.

As the SQA can also use exemptions from freedom of information requests and data protection legislation, it is hard in some cases to gain an insight into how grades are determined. The return of scripts would not only be helpful to teachers’ professional judgment, but prevent inappropriate appeals and lead to better quality assurance. Dr Brown talked to the committee about that again on 13 September 2017, but it has never happened.

If transparency is key to raising standards, so too is the independence of the SQA. John Swinney said on Tuesday that politicians must stand back. He knows only too well that the current structures have left the SQA far too close to Government and to the other education agencies. That has been a serious issue for several years but, again, nothing has happened.

There is, of course, the additional problem that the data set for Scottish schools is weak. That has been flagged up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and by almost every education expert across the country, irrespective of their political persuasion. Mr Swinney is rightly keen on benchmarking, but you can only have a benchmark if there is good data.

John Swinney tells us that his monumental U-turn on Tuesday was because he listened to young people, their parents and their teachers. The trouble is that he has not been listening to—and, more importantly, not acting upon—the concerns of the education sector for four long years. That is why he got the primary school testing issue wrong. It is why subject choice is a mess and why the curriculum for excellence has not delivered as well as it should have done. It is why we had to endure several years of named person chaos and why he had to U-turn on blended learning and on the SQA exams. That is exactly why John Swinney has lost the trust of the public.

The motion before the Parliament is about that loss of confidence and we will support it.


It appears that I must open my brief remarks by restating the obvious, as some members seem to have lost sight of the scale and impact of the global coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization reported just a few days ago that the number of Covid-19 cases worldwide was approaching the 20 million mark, with reported deaths due to the virus sadly exceeding 700,000. It is therefore evident that we are all living in unprecedented and exceptional times.

No decisions are easy for the Scottish Government or, indeed, any Government across the globe to make, because they require a difficult balancing of what can often be the competing interests and issues at stake. That is the case with regard to the exam process in Scotland this year.

The closure of schools on 20 March meant that for the first time in more than 100 years we were faced with the cancellation of the exam diet in Scotland. Evidently, a different approach was required, while seeking, to the extent that that was possible, to ensure the integrity of the system.

The cabinet secretary came to the Parliament on Tuesday this week, at the first available opportunity. He admitted that he did not get right the particular approach that was adopted, and he apologised for that. He came before us on Tuesday, with young people, their parents and their teachers right across Scotland listening in very closely, and he brought forward a solution. John Swinney listened, he acted and he fixed the problem.

Incidentally, as I was driving to the Parliament today, I heard reports on BBC radio that there are calls in England for the Secretary of State for Education to have the humility to do the same thing, further to the downgrading in nearly 40 per cent of the A level results that were published today.

I find it very puzzling that the Labour Party is proceeding with its motion today. That suggests that Labour members continue to prefer to engage in their usual dismal, miserabilist, negative politicking. It does not inspire any confidence whatsoever that they wish to put the interests of our young people at the heart of their endeavours; rather, it perhaps demonstrates why there is an increasingly widespread view that the Labour Party is well past its sell-by date in Scotland.

I have 100 per cent confidence in John Swinney as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I have 100 per cent confidence in John Swinney as the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and I have 100 per cent confidence in John Swinney the man—a man whom I have worked closely alongside over many decades, who is of unquestionable integrity and who is second to none in his commitment to public service.

We move to closing speeches. I call Jamie Greene, who is joining us remotely from his region.


Such debates seldom occur because they are seldom required. They are the last tool in the box for Parliament to express its ultimate discontent with the actions of a minister—in our case, one who is also our Deputy First Minister. They seldom occur because, in all honesty, they leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. They are unpleasant because they are usually the end product of a sequence of events—not one mistake or failure but years of them.

A lot has been said today in both attack and defence of Mr Swinney. Perhaps valid points have been made on both sides. However, Parliament must make its decision based on the evidence alone, and the evidence is undeniable.

The education secretary has presided over a flagship manifesto education bill that never got off the ground—another bill that was challenged by the courts. He was dragged reluctantly to the Parliament over the review of the curriculum, which had its remit expanded and augmented as more and more fault lines appeared in our system. He is now trying to bury that report until after next year’s election.

He promised Scotland’s parents funded childcare and was repeatedly warned, long before coronavirus, that that policy could not, and would not, be achieved, and he was defeated by Parliament on that. He pulled the rug from right under the feet of working families.

He promised blending learning, under which plans emerged for just one day a week of schooling in some parts of the country. How could that be acceptable to him or to any of us?

He oversaw falls in literacy and numeracy standards in well-established international league tables year after year. He made painful progress in closing the attainment gap in Scotland and was forced into a U-turn over an exam system that, under his direction, marked down those in our most deprived communities the most.

Neither the First Minister nor the education secretary have apologised for any of that today. The defence “What about in England?” simply does not wash in the real world, because the job of this Parliament is to hold this Government to account. Every U-turn has been the result of pressure—not leadership, but pressure—from parents, teachers and young people themselves.

I understand the First Minister’s loyalty to Mr Swinney. I have never questioned his personal commitment to his job, because I do not think that doing that serves any of us honourably, but there surely comes a day when loyalty, even to a friend, is strained and tested for the greater good. Today must be that day.

If the debate was only about exams, I would cut Mr Swinney some well-meaning slack, but there comes a point when you have to say, “Enough is enough.” Patience is a virtue, but it is limited in supply—more so when it comes the future of Scotland’s young people.

Twenty years ago, members on the Conservative benches supported the no confidence motion against the Government after it presided over a similar exams fiasco. That was just one event, but it was enough for the SNP to call for heads to roll. Those who led that charge—Mr Swinney, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Russell—now find themselves on the other side of that charge. Does it not feel awkward?

I will say this directly to Green Party members, who may have been appeased by the events of this week and who will save the day for the Government: you, too, must surely accept that this is the last chance saloon for Mr Swinney, because actions speak louder than words. Where do your loyalties lie—with the minister, or with the young people who you claim to defend and support so vocally?

I take no great pleasure in supporting the motion, but support it we must, because trust and confidence are what lies at the heart of education. If the education secretary can provide neither, somebody else must.


As Jamie Greene has just said, motions of no confidence are mercifully very rare parliamentary occasions. They should not be the occasion for random smears, political posturing and paying off old scores, which regrettably has been the norm in this debate. Instead, they should be a careful and clinical examination by means of a tightly drawn and clear set of objectives about a central issue, if and when a minister deserves to lose the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues and to be removed from office.

I made exactly the same point 20 years ago when I moved the first motion of no confidence in this chamber—the Presiding Officer was there. I apologise to those who were there, because they are going to hear the same arguments again.

To arrive at those tests, we need to look at parliamentary experience elsewhere. Although the parties in this chamber are not willing to think about what is happening at Westminster today, I am.

Despite belief that doing the honourable thing is a long tradition, in fact there were no such ministerial resignations at all at Westminster between 1917 and 1954. It was in 1954 that the famous Crichel Down case established for the modern age—[Interruption.] If the members listen, they will learn something. The case established some of the circumstances in which a minister should take the ultimate responsibility and either resign or be removed.

In December 2000, in the very first debate on a motion of no confidence, I suggested three tests that needed to be applied. First, did the minister fail to act at key times? I called that the Carrington test, because that was the reason why Lord Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary at the start of the Falklands campaign in 1982.

Secondly, was the policy that the minister was pursuing flawed because of the minister? I called that—[Interruption.] Wait and get the answers; do not guess the results. I called that the Howard test, after the former Tory leader Michael Howard, who failed to resign despite a debacle over prison escapes.

Thirdly, if the minister was culpable, is he or she already out of the way and not liable to cause any more harm? Think of that as the Mandelson test. I am sure that Labour members remember that their Minister Mandelson resigned twice in eight months.

Today, we can add a fourth test. When a minister discovers that there is a serious problem, does he or she act swiftly to resolve that problem, taking full responsibility as a minister should, ensuring that they apologise and institute the necessary action at the earliest opportunity? I am calling that the Swinney test, because he did just that.

John Swinney does not fail the Carrington test because he acted as soon as he could. He does not fail the Howard test because the methodology that the SQA used and the way that it were agreed was not defective.

Will Michael Russell give way on that point?

No. No indeed.

He does not fail the Mandelson test because he is there and working. He does not fail his own test: the Swinney test. He did the thing that I would always have expected from a man of integrity: he took responsibility and then he took action to make a difference to those affected. On any objective measurement, and applying any objective tests, John Swinney has no case to answer.

We could, however, apply some other tests, particularly to those members who have been baying for his blood this afternoon. We could try the Lamont-Gray test. Is the proposer of the motion blinded by bitterness at their own political failures?

Oh dear, dear.

I am talking about two ex-Labour leaders; there are a lot of them about.

What about the Davidson-Greene test? Is their political ambition so great that they do not care about the damage that they are doing to either the system or the individuals? Then there is the Rennie test. Is the position adopted just an attempt to get noticed? Anyone who votes for the motion tonight is failing those tests.

John Swinney has shown himself to be much bigger than his accusers. The pupils and the families who were affected—the really important people—have already shown their appreciation of what he has done. I hope that members are listening to those people and not to his discreditable and discredited accusers.

Members should apply one final test. I will call it the Glover test, after the Perthshire Church of Scotland minister who tweeted it on Tuesday night. These are his words:

“I want @JohnSwinney to stay.
Otherwise it’s a culture where
If you lie and deny, you can stay
If you admit and address you must go”.

I ask members to rise above the noise and unpleasantness of this afternoon. Let us do what I think Scotland wants and apply the Glover test. Let us not accept that Scotland is a country that prefers lying and denying to admitting and addressing. Let us aspire to something better than bitterness and bile. This week, John Swinney, for the sake of 75,000 young people, admitted and addressed. That is precisely what we should want from our leaders, and that is what this leader did. That is what this Parliament should ringingly endorse today.

I call Iain Gray to conclude the debate.


Presiding Officer,

“action has already been taken to restore confidence in the Scottish education system ... However, there is something else in which confidence must be restored—the notion that politicians, when found wanting in their obligations, should take responsibility, and that the buck stops with those who are ultimately responsible ... that may be an old-fashioned notion, but it is one that the Scottish people hold dear. It is faith in that basic principle of democratic accountability that will be restored in the chamber today if the motion is agreed to.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; c 852.]

That was what Nicola Sturgeon said 20 years ago in support of the very motion that Mr Russell mentioned. It was a motion of no confidence in an education secretary who had fixed an exam results fiasco and had been moved from that post. What is the difference between then and now?

We are in a pandemic.

I will come to the pandemic.

The first difference is that, then, 9,000 pupils were affected; this time, the figure is 75,000. The other difference is that, in 2000, the SQA made a huge mistake. This time, the SQA did exactly what ministers instructed it to do. That is what the chief executive told us yesterday, it is what the First Minister told us and, to his credit, it is what the Deputy First Minister himself has said. The mistake was all Mr Swinney’s. That is Mr Russell's first test failed.

Of course, the biggest difference, as the First Minister said from a sedentary position, is the pandemic and the cancellation of the exams. As he signalled his U-turn at the weekend, John Swinney said:

“These are unprecedented times and ... we will not get everything right first time.”

The trouble is, he did not get it wrong just the first time. He got it wrong in March, when he instructed the SQA to protect the system above all else. He got it wrong in April, in May, in June and in July, when he ignored warnings about what would happen. He got it wrong on 30 July, when he was shown the results in advance but did nothing. He got it wrong on 4 August, when those results ripped like a hurricane through the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a generation. He got it wrong for five more days while he justified what he had done, without contrition.

Mr Swinney did not get this right the first time, the second, third or fourth time, or even the 10th, 11th or 12th time. That is Mr Russell’s second test failed. Those young people paid the price with their anguish. Surely the minister who made that happen should pay the price with his job.

I admit that the education secretary’s eventual climbdown was complete and abject—but, then, he has had a lot of practice. As other members have mentioned, there was the climbdown over national testing data, and others on subject choice and the need for a curriculum review. There was the flagship education bill that he had to bring to Parliament to put out of its misery. On the named person legislation, he managed to lose both in the courts and in Parliament. It is only weeks since Mr Swinney came here to suddenly overturn weeks of preparation in schools for blended learning and social distancing, and announce to teachers and school staff that they had days to get ready to go back full time. It is no wonder that the strongest argument that opponents of today’s motion have been able to marshal in Mr Swinney’s defence is that he is not as bad as Gavin Williamson.

Presiding Officer, we cannot have our education system run on climbdowns and U-turns. We cannot have an education secretary who is good at apology but bad at policy; who speaks the language of teacher empowerment but then orders the SQA to trash teacher judgment; who says that he will close the attainment gap but then signs off an awards system that is explicitly designed to entrench that inequality; and who stands by for a week while pupils who face the worst jobs crisis in living memory coming their way see their futures crumble.

I return to the pandemic. Some might argue that, with a pandemic going on, when our schools are going back and there is much anxiety among parents, pupils and staff, now is not the time to change our education secretary. However, I ask members to think of this. We used to have a full-time education secretary and a full-time schools minister. Now, we have a Deputy First Minister with serious pandemic response responsibilities—and rightly so, because he is one of the most experienced ministers in the Government. However, he is also trying to run our schools, which, as Angela Constance said, is one of the hardest jobs in the Government. It is no wonder that he has failed—and he has failed, but he is still in post. He therefore fails Mr Russell’s third test, because he is still there.

This will not be Mr Swinney’s last mistake. I say to the Greens that it is good that they were part of the process of getting towards a solution for the young people concerned. However, the next time Mr Swinney fails, they will own that failure with him.

This is no time for us to have a damaged, part-time education secretary in whom we can have no confidence. If the First Minister will not listen to me, I urge her to listen to the Nicola Sturgeon who spoke in 2000, who once believed in the principle of democratic accountability. She should accept the motion, remove Mr Swinney from the education brief and let our schools go forward.