IF imitation is the sincerest form of flattery the First Minister and her party should be feeling good today. Not quite Nina Simone, fish in the sea, river running free good, but pretty chuffed nevertheless.

Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged that had her exam results been among the 124,000 downgraded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, then it was “very possible” she would have been among the pupils protesting in George Square last Friday. (All of whom, it was satisfying to note, were carrying placards free of any spelling mistakes. Maybe Scottish education is not in as much trouble as some fear.)

Given the preponderance of young women on the demo it is not too far fetched to imagine that some of them were inspired to speak out by the example of the FM herself. Having a woman in charge for six years can give a girl those sorts of ideas. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Similarly, Joanna Cherry QC MP, legal thorn in the side of the parliament-proroguing Johnson Government, could have been the example to follow for those parents now thinking of taking legal action against the SQA and the Scottish Government.

In reality, Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues should be feeling anything but flattered. What should have been a time of joy and relief for pupils and their parents has been in too many cases ruined.  Nor does it end there. Thousands of appeals are expected to be filed in the next few days, taking up teachers’ time when they should be settling children in after a long spell out of the classroom due to the coronavirus pandemic.  If, as expected, many grades are revised upwards, this will lead to further doubts about the integrity of the entire process. Was the Government relying on the appeals process to dig them out of a difficult situation all along?

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One way and another, the Scottish Government and the SQA are now presiding over a hot and cold running omnishambles. Scottish Labour has called for a vote of confidence in Mr Swinney.

By yesterday the Government appeared to finally realise the mess it was in. The Minister said he had “heard the anger of students” and was determined to address it when he makes a statement to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow. 

Thus far, the Government’s defence is that it tried to make the best of a bad situation, and no-one has come up with a better solution. But no-one had a chance to challenge the SQA’s method of awarding grades because it was kept under wraps alongside the results. For that the SQA can be blamed.

In turn, the Scottish Government has to accept it was in the wrong for allowing the quango to go ahead with a grading system that relied heavily and unfairly on a school’s past performance, thus disadvantaging pupils from deprived areas. Were Ministers aware of this, and if so why didn’t the alarm sound? This is a First Minister who has asked to be judged on closing the attainment gap, after all.

One feature of political life during the coronavirus crisis has been the way the four nations of the UK have been determined to go their own ways. Yet each has kept a close eye on the others to see what works and what does not. Scotland has led the way in how to bring schools back, and has been the first out of the blocks on exam grading.

The A  Level results are due this Thursday, and if there is as big a row over downgrades in the rest of the UK this will come to Mr Swinney’s aid. Saved by Boris Johnson – probably not the result the Education Secretary was hoping for.  If there is no similar row, and a way has been found to make the process fairer, the heat will be back on the Scottish Government.

All this is assuming Mr Swinney is still in his position come Thursday. It would be easy to call for a head to roll over the results shambles, particularly since the head in question was also the one that tried to push through a part-time return for schools. The Deputy FM has not had the best of summers.

But putting someone new in the job is not the answer, however much the opposition wants it.  With many children’s futures dependent on these results the priority now has to be ensuring appeals are dealt with fairly and efficiently. 

It is only at this stage of the crisis that it is becoming clear what a high price has been paid in so many ways, and by so many people, to protect the NHS. Other matters have been pushed to the side, necessarily so in the early stages.

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It would be terrible indeed if the class of 2020 were to be penalised for having the rotten luck to be sitting their exams in the time of coronavirus.  As for other pupils, it will take a huge effort to make up for the time already lost. Once more, the poorest pupils will be at the greatest disadvantage.

If Mr Swinney can tell us how he is going to address that, at the same time as ensuring the appeals process runs smoothly, then he deserves to stay in the job. But there can be no more mistakes. 

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