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Q&A with Education Secretary John Swinney

Holyrood Magazine

Q&A with Education Secretary John Swinney

Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?

In the past year the work of the independent Care Review has definitely been one of the most significant highlights for this portfolio and for the whole of Scotland as well. We are committed to delivering our pledge to improve the lives of care experienced people and work is already ongoing to develop and implement the infrastructure to deliver the outcomes within The Promise. This will require detailed and complex work across national and local government and a wide range of partners. I am pleased by the positive response across Scotland to realise this shared ambition. Implementation and oversight of The Promise will be led by Fiona Duncan. This approach will ensure the ethos, approach and commitments of the Care Review can be at the heart of this process.

Do you regret the way you handled the communication around the re-opening of schools in August?

When we set up the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG) in April the outlook was poor compared to where we are now. Cases and fatalities were high and effective suppression of the virus looked a long way off. My approach throughout has been to base all decisions and announcements on the best scientific advice available to me at the time.  In June, as a direct result of the efforts by the general public throughout Scotland, it became apparent that we were making great progress towards suppressing coronavirus compared to where we expected to be earlier in the outbreak. This meant that earlier scientific advice cautioning against reopening schools was overtaken. 

The pace of change has been rapid and I have always been clear that intention is to reinstate a return to full time education as soon as it is safe to do so. Throughout the entire pandemic we have communicated clearly and openly based on the available evidence.  I believe this is absolutely essential for transparent decision making and on that basis we were confident about the decision to reopen schools on 11 August.  Clearly, if things change again, and the infection rate rises, making it no longer safe for children to be in school, then we are all in a position to act on that. 

Do you fear that the virus will have a lasting impact on the educational needs of Scotland’s young people?

There is so much we do not know about the virus and its potential impacts but we are working very hard with our partners across Scotland to do everything we can to mitigate any negative consequences. Throughout the course of the pandemic the Education Recovery Group, supported by our scientific advisors, has considered a wide range of issues to make sure all possible plans are in place for the safe return of our children and young people to full time education. We know this will be a big change for everyone. 

We also recognise the disruption and challenges caused by the pandemic, in particular the impact on children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we do not believe that it must have a lasting impact.  Working together we will prioritise support to accelerate the process of learning recovery for children. A return to full-time schooling in August will, without a doubt, enhance the life chances of our children and young people and start to reverse any damaging impacts of recent months.

Throughout lockdown we have ensured local authorities and schools are in receipt of additional funding or offered substantial flexibility to redirect existing funding. This includes the ability to redirect Attainment Scotland Funding to mitigate the impact of school closures on our most disadvantaged families. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a defining mission of this Government – COVID-19 has only served to strengthen that commitment.

Are you happy with the way the SQA has managed the process of deciding marks for young people who have missed exams and the transparency around that?

I asked the SQA to ensure that 2020 qualifications would be as valid as qualifications in any other year. In a very short space in time, the SQA developed a model which gathered teachers’ and lecturers’ estimates and a process of moderation to maintain standards and fairness. The SQA did that in good faith.

I now accept we placed too much emphasis on maintaining standards and not enough on considering how much of an impact COVID had on the lives of young people. I accept we got that balance wrong. I have apologised to every young people whose estimate was downgraded by the model that was used, and ensured that teacher judgement alone is the basis for this year’s certification.

As I told Parliament, we will look to learn lessons from the process to inform any future actions.

What will coronavirus mean for the long-term future of Scotland’s universities, and how can the Scottish Government help?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a massive impact on our universities. We know there is a risk there will be a decrease in the numbers enrolling in Scottish universities, with a consequent reduction in tuition fee income. The UK Government’s announcement last month of a temporary number control on numbers of English students enrolling at universities in the devolved nations was also very unhelpful.  I am however encouraged by the BBC’s recent report which suggested that the number of people from countries outside Europe who have applied for a place at a Scottish university has gone up by 16 per cent, despite the pandemic. 

Our higher education institutions will have a crucial role in our recovery and they must be supported through this difficult period. We are doing our utmost to ensure Scotland’s institutions remain world leaders and key drivers of the economy.  Our Further and Higher Education Sustainability Plan highlights the steps we have taken to support higher education, including: £75m to protect world leading research; £10m for estates development; the development of an International Student Action Plan; an additional £5m across FE and HE student support; and early access to £11.4m of HE Hardship Funds.  Our universities will also have access to grants and substantial long-term low interest loans that the UK Government announced last month.

We have also commissioned the Scottish Funding Council lead a review of coherent provision and financial sustainability. The review work will cover provision, delivery, outcomes and targets, and funding, including support for research activity, across the college and university sector and we expect their early considerations to be shared in the next couple of months.

Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown or what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted?

I actually liked lockdown and didn’t really have a longing for it to lift to enable me to do something different. I was at home a lot more, able to share in multiple little moments with my wife and son that I often miss. I desperately missed seeing my dad and my older children particularly as my mum died just at the start of lockdown. I did not see my dad other than on Skype for 10 weeks after my mum’s funeral and that was really tough. It was lovely to see him when the restrictions were lifted. One of the other blessings of lockdown was that I went out for a run most days, in good weather, amidst the beautiful surroundings of Perthshire. That was a real blessing. So, I rather regretted when lockdown was lifted.

How did you manage your own son’s schooling during lockdown?

Matthew’s school sent material several times a day electronically to us. My wife Elizabeth mainly supervised the tasks while I helped out on different topics or projects. The school did a fabulous job in providing material and they also contributed fun elements like virtual school trips and sports days. As is tradition with sports days, the day that was chosen was wet so some things never change.

If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?

Shirley-Anne Somerville. She always has a great supply of chocolate with her.

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