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Learning lessons: Q&A with John Swinney

John Swinney (Scottish Parliament TV)

Learning lessons: Q&A with John Swinney

Cabinet Secretary for Education John Swinney on the challenges posed to education by the COVID pandemic

How difficult has it been balancing the whole risk of COVID and the clear need to give children continuity in terms of their education?

There is no question that the last year has been a turbulent period for Scotland’s education sector. It has been extremely challenging for pupils and parents as every aspect of our national life has been affected by the COVID crisis. There has been a constant need to work to sustain education provision within the context of the public health pandemic. Teaching and non-teaching staff in our schools and early learning and childcare settings are performing extraordinarily under challenging circumstances. They have worked incredibly hard to do the best for our children and young people by putting in place systems that have supported pupils in a range of creative and stimulating ways. The current remote learning offer is a significant achievement by all within the education system.

Are you confident that children will make up for lost time and this won’t have a long-lasting effect on their education?

Education is, and will remain, a priority throughout the pandemic. I am determined that schools and children have all the support they need to mitigate the impact of COVID and to ensure the educational needs of every young person is fulfilled. We will engage actively with the education system as more evidence emerges of the educational needs of young people. In doing so, we will make sure that everyone has their say as we chart our way forward as we safely emerge from the crisis. Our Education Recovery Group includes many voices: parents, teachers, councils, trade unions and Scottish Youth Parliament representatives. School staff have been brilliant and I know that they will continue to work tirelessly for their pupils.

The whole exams debacle last year just seemed so chaotic. Do you regret the prevarication that went on that left young people really worried about their future?

We faced an incredibly difficult situation in trying to certificate the achievements of young people last year. We took early action to cancel the exams and put in place an alternative system. We did not get everything correct and I acted swiftly to resolve the issues. I have made clear that lessons had to be learned from last year’s qualifications process, which is why swift action was taken to commission Professor Priestley to carry out an independent review. As a consequence, decisions on the awarding of 2021 National Qualifications have been informed by Professor Priestley’s recommendations, with widespread stakeholder consultation and co-creation of the alternative certification model through the National Qualifications 2021 Group. This year’s results will be based on teacher judgement of evidence of pupil attainment, with no algorithms applied. The Scottish Government and SQA are committed to ensuring that the assessment process continues to fairly recognise the hard work of learners and protect their life chances by facilitating certification and their onwards learner journey or transition into employment.

Does the difference between the results predicted by teachers last year from those normally achieved in exams, particularly among young people from more deprived backgrounds, suggest there may be a problem with the reliance on exams in awarding grades and that we could do things differently?

There are different methods of assessing the achievements of learners and we should be open to the debate on that issue. As part of the suite of work I outlined following the 2020 SQA results, I asked the OECD to expand on the focus of their current work on the curriculum to have a deeper focus on the future of assessment and qualification approaches in the senior phase curriculum in Scotland. This work is underway and will analyse Scotland’s current approach and will inform any future options to enhance our approach, informed by international good practice. A breadth of qualifications and awards are offered in Scotland’s schools (and colleges) which do not involve formal exams at the end of the course, instead relying on continuous assessment. These include National 4, Higher National Certifications and Higher National Diplomas, and offer a credible, alternative pathway through the senior phase.  

For young people going to university for the first time last year, it can’t have been the experience that they were hoping for. Do you worry about how that might affect them long term?

I know that this has not been the educational experience that students expect and deserve, and I am grateful to them for the sacrifices they are making to protect themselves, their fellow students and the wider community. Through our Learner Journey Taskforce we are urgently working in partnership with colleges, universities, staff and student representatives to investigate all practical solutions to enable students to continue and complete their learner journeys, and move into employment or further study. I am very  aware of the mental health and wellbeing challenges faced by our students, and we have continued to make clear to institutions our expectations regarding support for students. We have also continued to provide the necessary financial support to our colleges, universities and student associations so that they can deliver vital welfare support and services to our students.

It seemed no matter what you did, it was never the right thing because you couldn’t predict the virus. How difficult was that personally for you trying to control something that you couldn’t?

The year of the pandemic has been by far the most challenging of my 14 years as a Scottish Government minister. Every decision has been difficult to take in a constantly changing environment as the pandemic developed. Our decisions have needed to tackle a serious condition with a potentially grave impact on human life. That has involved carrying a huge amount of personal strain in my ministerial work, whilst also carrying the anxieties and worries about the wellbeing of my own family during the pandemic.

Can you take any positives for education out of this pandemic?

Yes. There have been many developments in the delivery of education that have changed practice in a short space of time. The expansion of digital learning, which has long been an objective in Scottish education, has taken place at great speed and to great effect. Pedagogy has been adapted to ensure education is developed in the context of COVID. It is vital that we hold on to these developments and ensure they have a place in the future of Scottish education. We have been learning a lot as we navigate our way through the pandemic and it is important to pause and take stock and look at where we are, and where we are heading.

As the education sector recovers this year, my priority will be to ensure the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff, intensified support for reducing inequity, and enabling the highest quality of learning and teaching. For example, parliament has agreed the new statutory date for the delivery of 1,140 hours. From August 2021, all three and four-year-olds, and a quarter of two-year-olds, will be eligible for around 30 hours a week of funded high-quality care and learning. We were always clear that our decision to delay the expansion was simply a pause, and our determination remained to deliver this transformational policy. It’s great to have a new delivery date to work towards.  Beyond that, the education system has made significant progress with regard to the use and availability of digital technology. Our investment in digital inclusion which will benefit over 70,000 individuals, the huge uptick in use of Glow services, and the development of the National eLearning Offer will stand us in good stead as the system recovers.

Would it be fair to still judge the FM on education, given these unprecedented times?

The First Minister has given the greatest priority to ensuring we make progress to improve Scottish education and deliver our agenda of excellence and equity for all. Important progress has been made in closing the attainment gap and we have expanded the size of the teaching workforce to ensure we have the resources in place to lead learning and teaching. The expansion of early learning and childcare is a crucial part of our agenda to ensure young people get off to the best start in their education. We are succeeding in our agenda of widening access to higher and further education having achieved our early targets. So yes, I think there has been vital progress on the education agenda and the First Minister has given clear and emphatic leadership to this priority.

You’ve had your own issues at home with a wife who needs to shield and a son being home schooled. How have you coped and has your son’s experience informed you as Education Secretary?

At the same time as I have been contributing to the government’s efforts to deal with the pandemic, I have had my own worries at home. Elizabeth has had to shield and has also been unable to access the treatment she needs to manage her MS. That has made things tough but everyone is dealing with tough circumstances. Matthew has been well supported in his home schooling so I have seen at first hand what a good quality experience can look like. I am full of admiration for Matthew’s school for the excellent work they have put in place. I think that experience is mirrored around the country.

You have faced two votes of no confidence within a year. How has that felt and how would you mark your own performance?

These events obviously bring more pressure and strain on top of everything else with which I wrestle. So I am not going to say it is anything other than tough. You will not be surprised to hear that I did not think there was a justification for these motions coming forward. It is for others to assess my performance. I do my best on a daily basis to serve the people I represent in Perthshire North and the people of Scotland. People will have a chance to judge me soon.

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