Goodbye, Honest John… and hello to the minister for U-turns
YOU might dimly recall a time when Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy was known as Honest John.
Ever-prudent as Finance Secretary, he was praised for balancing the books – even though this was a strict legal requirement.
That reputation took a knock during the Named Person debacle, when he oversaw a disastrous attempt to appoint state guardians for all children.
Now Honest John has become the Minister for U-turns after yet another fiasco on his watch, this time over the mass downgrading of pupils’ exam results.
The row has sent a torpedo through any vestigial hope the Nationalists may have had of championing social justice, as poorer youngsters were hardest-hit.
Today (August 11) Mr Swinney is set to outline a change in stance after days of standing firm in the face of a major backlash.
The pressure is on as opposition parties are plotting a no confidence vote later this week; a lot is riding on whatever compromise Mr Swinney unveils today.
A hastily cobbled-together fudge is unlikely to cut it, and then there are all those angry 16-year-olds who – thanks to the SNP – have the right to vote at next May’s Scottish election.
Nor is it Mr Swinney’s first U-turn of the pandemic: the climbdown over ‘blended learning’ – the euphemism for part-time schooling – was another monumental volte-face.
He also suggested schools may not reopen even after the summer break, further weakening the morale of the legion of involuntary home educators toiling through lockdown.
Sensing the restive mood of thousands of families in desperate need of good news, Miss Sturgeon then slapped him down at her coronavirus briefing.
More recently, he announced without warning that ‘wherever possible’ secondary pupils would have to socially distance in schools, while retaining full-time education for all: a logistical impossibility.
Last week Mr Swinney was also kept out of public view until meekly tweeting on Sunday that he had ‘heard the anger of students who feel their hard work’s been taken away from them’.
It took him a while to hear it, but the prospect of the SNP’s hitherto ultra-loyal Green allies turning on him clearly spurred him into action.
The cancellation of exams and the subsequent botched contingency arrangements are a good indication of how seriously ministers ranked education in their list of priorities.
True, there were many priorities, not least the mounting death toll and the unfolding carnage in care homes, but from the start education was treated as an optional extra.
Was it always a given that exams should be scrapped in their entirety, given exam halls are by their nature socially distanced; was it inevitable that all schools were shut?
They weren’t closed in Sweden, where there was no lockdown (and it seems its economy has taken less of a battering than the rest of Europe).
In time, no doubt, costly inquiries will rule on whether the broad strategy was correct.
What is indisputable is the fundamental injustice of an approach that robs a child of the right to prove their ability in an exam setting, then decides their fate based on a secretive algorithm.
Ministers insist they listened to the experts at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), but it’s a troubled quango with a chequered history.
In 2016 a survey by Holyrood’s education committee found nearly 70 per cent of teachers, parents and pupils had lost faith in the agency.
If this rang alarm bells at the education department of the Scottish Government, it seems no-one heard them, or if they did it’s not clear what action, if any, was taken to restore trust.
(Under pressure: John Swinney, Minister for U-turns)
The previous year (2015), it emerged that the then chief executive of the SQA, Dr Janet Brown, had used a taxpayer-funded credit card to spend more than £2,500 on hotel stays in India – and refused to explain why.
The quango also used a private public relations firm – which boasts of its ‘dynamic crisis PR’ – to deal with some media enquiries.
Tomorrow (WEDS) the new SQA boss, Fiona Robertson, will be grilled by MSPs; it’s hard to see how in any other organisation (apart from the Scottish Government, perhaps) an executive responsible for such a blunder could cling on.
It’s reminiscent of another exams fiasco back in 2000, when thousands of pupils received late or incomplete results, throwing university places into uncertainty.
Many years passed before the SQA was able to claim it had recovered from that public relations nightmare, though arguably – given that damning Holyrood committee survey in 2016 – it didn’t ever win back the trust of parents and professionals.
But the buck stops with Mr Swinney – or Humble John as might we call him when he addresses parliament today.
Ministers will always interpret U-turns as evidence that they are listening to voters, and it’s true that a U-turn is better than refusing to give ground in the face of universal opposition.
But why are they getting it so wrong in the first place? The answer lies partly in the circumstances: decision-making during a pandemic can’t always be watertight.
The civil service machine was under pressure as never before, and ministers were tackling a crisis for which, patently, they had never prepared.
But it’s also obvious that after 13 years in power they have become lazy, complacent and tone-deaf to the concerns of ordinary families.
Alex Salmond was a populist who weighed the consequences of policy decisions based on what voters would make of them – principle was a secondary concern, unless the principle was independence.
The current administration has lost some of that sure-footedness, while remaining fixated with the same goal that drove Mr Salmond.
Education was more or less forgotten about during the height of the pandemic, but it never really rated too highly anyway, because the SNP is a single-issue party.
When every move you make is viewed through a constitutional prism, the more pedestrian task of good governance becomes a bit of a chore.
And the paucity of opposition at Holyrood means ministers have grown used to getting their own way for far too long.
An Education Bill was ditched while other barmy plans were pursued, from the abortive bid to ban sectarian singing at football matches, to the doomed Named Person plan, and now a badly drafted Hate Crime Bill which threatens to undermine free speech.
All of which represents a shameful desertion of duty by a government that is hell-bent on its eternal crusade for independence, but is yet to discover a talent for running the country.
If Mr Swinney does stay in his job, it’s worth remembering what lies ahead: schools reopen this week, and it’s possible next year’s exams will be scrapped.
It’s simply not tenable to have a minister who defines the term ‘damaged goods’ to guide pupils through this period of upheaval and uncertainty.
Nor is it possible to believe a government that has failed children year after year – despite grand promises of educational reform – will finally put their interests ahead of its own narrow and destructive constitutional agenda.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 11, 2020.