IT seems appropriate, amid this shambles, that there should be a rigorous, fair-minded and thorough examination of the Scottish Government’s record after the qualifications awarded to students this year. In normal circumstances, these would be exam results, but there have of course been no exams, and the results – bar the obvious conclusion that this has been an unnecessarily bungled and highly unsatisfactory process – are still uncertain.

If there have been no examinations in schools, all the more need for an examination of schools, since the mishandling of this year’s awards is merely one of many deficiencies in the Government’s education policy – despite the First Minister’s assurance that it is her chief priority.

The acceptance that there were serious flaws in the means by which grades were assessed, and that it was a further mistake to attempt to defend them, before a rapid U-turn that affected tens of thousands of pupils, does not diminish the Government’s responsibility, still less transform their scraped C grade (to be charitable) into an A.

The situation in England – now plunged into similar uproar over its grades – demonstrates that the process of awarding qualifications, when there has been such substantial upheaval and insufficient information on which to make judgments that will inspire general confidence was always going to be far from ideal. Since results create rows over where grade boundaries are set and individual instances of apparent unfairness at the best of times, some furore was predictable and inevitable.

The roots of the word examination are connected with the indicator on scales, so balance, which naturally weighs against some, has always been seen as part of the process. For the purposes of consistency, some moderation of teacher’s estimated grades is always going to be necessary. While there is a strong case for giving some leeway to this year’s exam cohorts, an unrealistic set of results would be unfair to their near contemporaries.

Everyone accepts these are tricky problems, without perfect solutions. But the SNP government cannot avoid culpability on that basis: they received numerous warnings, with ample time, about their approach, yet did nothing. That remained the case even after the fact, until the tide of opinion proved impossible to resist, at which stage they executed a complete volte-face and hoped that would be the end of the matter.

It ought not to be. First, because it is of a piece with other policy failures. The curriculum for excellence has delivered nothing of the sort; the name looks like a bad joke when the stubborn attainment gap with other parts of the UK persists, when Scotland slides in international tables (and abandons participation in schemes that provide meaningful comparisons), when, despite obfuscation and shifting of parameters, overall achievement can be seen to be falling and – most damning of all – the least advantaged are the worst affected, and offered the fewest opportunities.

But there is a secondary imperative for a rethinking of policy, connected with the pandemic. It’s certain that sporadic local lockdowns will continue for some time, and quite likely that there could be a return to wider restrictions. Lack of preparation may have been a good reason for the, at best, patchy provision of home schooling, support structures, online lessons and other coping strategies at the beginning of the year. There can be no such excuses now.

Hard-working teachers are for the most part as frustrated as their pupils, even if the teaching unions have been less constructive, advancing their priorities more noisily than those of students and parents. Lessons must be learnt from this fiasco, and urgently applied. Future year groups may well face similar challenges; it will be a damning failure if they have to do so – as the current cohort has – without support, clear guidance, consistent treatment and an expectation of fairness. This sorry episode illustrates the need for a radical rethink of how we provide a system that is fit for purpose, and offers students what they deserve.