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Nicola Sturgeon must drop ‘failing’ John Swinney as education secretary, says Scottish Labour

Deputy first minister John Swinney
Deputy first minister John Swinney

Nicola Sturgeon must drop John Swinney as her education secretary in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle following “five years of drift and decline” under his leadership, Scottish Labour has said.

Michael Marra, the party’s education spokesman, accused Mr Swinney of overseeing “a litany of failures” and urged Ms Sturgeon to remove him from the education brief in the “hope a new minister can stop the rot.”

Labour has published a document detailing what it called Mr Swinney’s “litany of failures” over the last parliament, including failing to close the educational attainment gap between wealthy and poorer pupils, and Scotland tumbling down international league tables for literacy and numeracy.

It argues Mr Swinney, who is also deputy first minister, failed to manage the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and that he has now “lost the confidence of staff across all parts of the sector” following the debacle over last year’s cancellation of exams.

John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, listens to Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Ms Sturgeon is expected to complete her post-election reshuffle after being confirmed as first minister and will need to fill the prominent positions left by departing health secretary Jeane Freeman and constitution secretary Michael Russell.

Mr Marra said: “In five years as education secretary John Swinney has accrued a litany of failures to his name. Time and time again, he has failed to meet the challenge posed by the pandemic and has now led the pupils of Scotland into yet another exams crisis.

“But John Swinney’s failings began before the pandemic. Educational standards have fallen on his watch, and the scandal that is the attainment gap has persisted stubbornly.

New MSP Michael Marra
Scottish Labour’s newly elected Michael Marra arrives for registration at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.

“In Parliament last week the education secretary had the chance to acknowledge the latest exams crisis which is causing misery and anxiety across the country.

“Instead, he chose to dig in by insisting that the exams being sat in exam halls across Scotland are not exams at all. Crucially, John Swinney has lost the confidence of staff across all parts of the sector.

“He cannot be the person to turn the situation around and the first minister should act now. We can only hope a new minister can stop the rot.”

Mr Swinney came close to losing his job last summer as he faced a vote of no confidence after tens of thousands of pupils’ grades were downgraded by a Scottish Qualifications Authority algorithm that disproportionately affected poorer families.

He initially defended the process and denied he performed a U-turn in the face of the confidence vote to save his own career.

Opposition parties have accused him of presiding over another crisis this year after pupils were told they would not have to sit exams but have now been forced to take “assessments” in exam conditions without study leave.

The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.


The list of ‘failures’ as set out by Scottish Labour

Failures during Covid-19 –

• Failure to work with the SQA to create a credible and fair moderation system for
assessment in 2020.
• Failure to force the SQA to publish its moderation methodology and equality
assessment ahead of the August 4 2020 results date.
• Failure to immediately admit that the SQA results fiasco was his responsibility.
• Failure to deliver a fair appeals process for 2020 grades and teacher estimates,
taking into account pupils’ past performance.
• Failure to cancel 2021 examinations in a timely manner and provide clarity to schools
and pupils about alternative assessments.
• Failure to deliver a credible or consistent alternative assessment process for 2021,
leaving pupils to sit exams in all but name.

Home learning
• Failure to provide teachers, parents and pupils with timely and adequate learning
resources to support home schooling.
• Failure to deliver the 25,000 laptops and tablets that were earmarked for the most
disadvantaged pupils on time.

Reopening schools after first lockdown
• Failure to produce a route map and timetable for schools to return, leaving them
underprepared and vulnerable to the impact of spikes in infection and transmission
• Failure to release scientific evidence on the safety of schools reopening at the point
that new announcements were made.
• Failure to undertake a Pupil Equity Audit.
• Failure to stand up to scrutiny: the SNP suspended all key measures whereby their
education policy could be evaluated.
• Failure to provide clear guidance and guarantees on PPE for teachers and school
• Failure to provide local authorities with the funds they need to implement the
Scottish Government’s return to full-time education.

Reopening schools following lockdown in 2021
• Failure to provide guidance and ensure consistency of in-person teaching for pupils
returning on a part-time basis ahead of the full return.
• Failure to prioritise teacher vaccinations to reduce transmission and outbreaks in

Early Learning and Childcare
• Failure to announce the required resources and timeline for 1,140 hours of childcare
to be delivered as soon as possible.

Colleges and Universities
• Failure to back student calls for summer financial support through SAAS.
• Failure to provide universities and colleges with the sufficient funding they need to
weather the crisis.

‘Failures’ prior to Covid-19 –

  • Ongoing: Failure to fully implement the funded provision of nursery and childcare for families who defer entry of their 5 year old to Primary One (delayed until 2023).
  • Ongoing: Failure to end the use of zero-hour and insecure contracts in teaching, and to address the teacher recruitment and workload crisis.
  • Ongoing: Failure to address the reduction in subjects which senior pupils can study.
  • Ongoing: Failure to reduce class sizes.
  • Ongoing: Failure to take steps to halt the “explosion” of teaching in classes covering three and four different levels.
  • Ongoing: Failure to re-enter Scotland into internationally recognised measurements of literacy, numeracy and science (PIRLS and TIMSS).
  • Ongoing: Failure to replace core funding for schools creating a situation whereby Pupil Equity Funding, designed to help those most disadvantaged, simply has to plug holes.
  • Ongoing: Failure to close the attainment gap faced by disadvantaged pupils and those who are care experienced.
  • Ongoing: Failure to provide local authorities with enough money to support children and young people with additional support needs.
  • Ongoing: Failure to replace the number of specialist teachers supporting those with additional support needs.
  • Ongoing: Failure to reduce or eradicate student debt, despite campaigning on a “ditch the debt” platform.
  • Ongoing: Failure to meaningfully reform the country’s student support system, despite recommendations made in the Scottish Government commissioned Student Support Review.
  • Ongoing: Failure to return college student numbers to pre-2007 levels.
    Ongoing: Failure to provide the funding needed for the university sector in the most recent budget.
  • December 2019: Failure to improve attainment as measured in the PISA results (Programme for International Student Assessment) (In every area performance has deteriorated under the SNP).
  • October 2019: Failure to deliver automatic entitlement for an additional funded year of nursery for children whose parents legally delay their enrolment into Primary One. (Parliament backed Labour’s motion calling on the Scottish Government to close the Give Them Time loophole).
  • September 2018: Failure to scrap the Scottish National Standardised Assessments for Primary Ones, as instructed by Parliament. (Parliament passes Scottish Labour motion calling for standardised national testing from Primary One pupils to be scrapped.)
  • Summer 2018: Failure to properly manage access to Yammer app after a ‘pornographic image’ was circulated on it.
  • June 2018: Failure to get enough support for the SNP Government’s Education Bill, which had to be dropped.