Willie Rennie, Shirley Anne Somerville and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
By Bill Heaney
What’s the deadline for making further changes to to this year’s SQA examinations process, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was asked in the Scottish Parliament today.
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs: “Given that we are still living through a global pandemic, contingencies are needed in education as in all other aspects of life right now.
“Should any of those contingencies be required—there are two key contingencies in education as far as exams are concerned—we would notify that as soon as possible.
“I hope that that is not the case: I hope that we do not need to activate those contingencies. As has been clear since August, our firm intention this year is that exams will go ahead.”
Tory Oliver Mundell conceded: “The First Minister is right that contingencies are needed—but not the type that her Government proposes. She should be guaranteeing that exams will take place this year.
“Does she reflect negatively on the confirmation from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills yesterday at the Education, Children and Young People Committee that no additional resources are being put in place to allow that to happen safely?
“What has happened to suggestions about acquiring larger community spaces? What about putting additional invigilators in place? What about one-to-one support, most importantly for young people who have lost out on their learning?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “Oliver Mundell says that the contingencies that we have put in place are not the type that should be put in place, but that is probably a standard for the Conservatives: we say one thing, and they will say another.
“Let me say what those contingencies are, so that people can judge for themselves. The first contingency is that, if education is further disrupted because of developments in the pandemic—and we all hope that it will not be—additional support will be provided for those who are studying for exams.
“I am interested to hear that Oliver Mundell does not think that that is an appropriate contingency; I think that it is, indeed, an appropriate contingency.
“The second contingency is that, if public health advice says that it is not safe for young people to come together to sit exams in the traditional way, we will go back to a situation that is akin to the past two years, where teacher judgment comes to bear instead of exams. Again, I think that that is an appropriate contingency.
“We do not want to have to use either of those contingencies because we want exams to go ahead, as we think that is in the interests of young people.
“Oliver Mundell asks me to guarantee things. I would love to be able to guarantee all sorts of things, but we are still living through a global pandemic.
“As we were reflecting on in my exchange with Anas Sarwar, we have had two new variants in the past few months alone.
“None of us can guarantee the immediate future in the context of the pandemic, but we make plans based on what we hope will be the case.
“Right now, that is to allow young people to sit their exams this year as normal, but to have sensible and appropriate contingencies in place in case something happens that makes that impossible.”
LibDem Willie Rennie accused the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Shirley Anne Somerville, of having made “a right mess of this”.
He explained: “She issued two conflicting statements within two days, which included making a major announcement on Twitter, which is hardly the forum for such announcements.
“There was such confusion that the SQA had to step in to clarify things. Does the First Minister think that that is the right way to treat pupils who are preparing for exams right now?”
Ms Sturgeon was unfazed: “That is a complete misrepresentation of the position. I am sorry if Willie Rennie missed it, but the education secretary set out in a statement to the Parliament in August last year, I think, what the Scottish Government’s intention was in relation to exams this year, which was that exams would go ahead.
“As she was reflecting, and as I have just reflected again, contingencies have to be in place when we are living through a global pandemic. However, the intention for exams to go ahead has not changed.
“If Willie Rennie is referring to the same Twitter exchange that I saw, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was rightly seeking not to make announcements on Twitter, but to deal with some of the confusion that, if I may say, the misrepresentations of Opposition politicians have added to, as we have just heard from Willie Rennie.”