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John Swinney removed as education secretary but will take on Covid recovery post

John Swinney attainment gap
John Swinney

John Swinney has been moved on from his role as education secretary but will remain as deputy first minister as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s post-election Cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Swinney, who has served as deputy to the first minister since 2014, will take responsibility for driving cross-government action on the coronavirus pandemic in a newly created post as cabinet secretary for Covid recovery.

The Scottish Government say the new role will see Mr Swinney mobilise officials and the wider public, private and third sectors “to ensure a strong recovery”.

He will chair a cross-party steering group, which is expected to meet for the first time next week, and will take the lead on inter-governmental relations, public service reform, including within government, and the delivery of a number of “transformational projects” across government and wider society.

This includes the incorporation of the UN Human Rights treaties and the delivery of ‘The Promise’ to care experienced young people. He will be supported in the new job by the parliamentary business minister.

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).

More appointments expected

Further cabinet and ministerial appointments are expected to be announced by Ms Sturgeon on Wednesday but it is not yet clear who will replace Mr Swinney or fill other vacant positions such as health secretary and constitution secretary.

The Scottish Government appeared to frame Mr Swinney’s removal from the education brief on Tuesday night as a simple shift in roles but Ms Sturgeon had faced calls to drop him from the job following “five years of drift and decline”.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra accused Mr Swinney on Tuesday of overseeing “a litany of failures” and urged the first minister to remove him as education secretary in the “hope a new minister can stop the rot.”

Labour 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 failed to manage the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and that he had “lost the confidence of staff across all parts of the sector” following the debacle over last year’s cancellation of exams.

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.

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

‘Educational standards have fallen’

“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.

“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.”

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

Deputy First Minister John Swinney during the debate ahead of a vote of no confidence in him at the Scottish Parliament.

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

Opposition parties 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.

Our first priority

Confirming the announcement on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon said: “Our first priority as a government is to lead the country through the pandemic and into a recovery that supports our NHS, protects and creates jobs, backs our young people and contributes to our ambition to be a net zero nation.

“Appointing John Swinney to drive cross government work on Covid recovery is a key step in getting Scotland’s recovery off to the right start.

“How we begin our recovery is crucial to the kind of country we can become, and that means ensuring everyone, whether in government, the public sector, the business community or wider society is pulling in the same direction.”

Mr Swinney says recovery in schools, the health service, economy and across wider society is the government’s immediate priority and he is “honoured to have been asked to lead that mission”.

“I am determined that government will bring the same urgency that we applied to the actions we took to protect public health, to the actions we need to take to secure a fair and just recovery,” he said.

“I will be bringing opposition parties together next week to hear their contributions and to set out how I believe we can all work together to secure a strong recovery.”


The deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for Covid recovery will have the following responsibilities:

  • Government strategy.
  • Inter-governmental relations
  • Cross-government coordination of Covid recovery policies
  • Cross-government coordination on Covid-19 recovery and Covid-19 strategic reviews.
  • Delivery and outcomes across portfolios.
  • Public service reform.
  • Cross-government coordination on UN treaty incorporation.
  • Resilience.
  • Government statistics.
  • Office of the Chief Researcher.
  • Local Government Boundary Commission.
  • National Performance Framework.
  • Historical abuse inquiry.
  • Local governance review and democratic renewal.
  • Efficient Government.
  • Cross-Government delivery of ‘The Promise’ to care experienced young people.