John Swinney took the chance of the school October break to ‘reflect’ in a blog on how the reopening of schools had gone. He praised the ‘truly extraordinary effort by teachers, school staff, local authorities, parents, and pupils’ in getting schools open again, and he was right to do so.

However, he omitted to mention that this effort was made harder by months spent preparing for a ‘blended ‘ return as he had instructed, right down to having physically reconfigured their classrooms, only to have those plans overturned, overnight, days before the school holidays began.

There was no acknowledgement either that councils and headteachers were hindered by weeks of haggling by the government on the provision of resources to meet the additional costs incurred by councils to reopen schools safely.

Mr Swinney’s blog also glossed over teachers having to teach courses for two months before being told whether exams would go ahead, what assessments they must administer in case they do not, and how the curriculum will be modified to account for lost time. This dilatory approach from the Education Secretary and the SQA left some pupils having studied topics now removed from assessments, while some subject teachers are still waiting for advice from the SQA.

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This pales into insignificance alongside the precursor to schools reopening which was the SQA awards fiasco. The inquiry into this shambles by Professor Priestley was scathing, although it received little attention, having been conveniently published by Mr Swinney on the same day as National 5 exams were cancelled, the central belt was locked down and major revelations regarding the Salmond inquiry appeared.

The Priestley report makes clear that the Education secretary knew in advance that thousands of results had been downgraded, with hundreds of pupils having seen as many as five subjects downgraded, and that his response was to demand ‘digging’ in the statistics for numbers he could spin to pretend this was fair to all pupils.

It manifestly was not fair, but if angry pupils had not taken to the streets and Labour had not threatened his own future with a vote of no confidence, Mr Swinney would still be defending the results and claiming the ‘integrity of the system’ justified this pain suffered by thousands of young people.

It is not just the last few months of Mr Swinney’s stewardship of education which bear serious ‘reflection’. He was given the Education portfolio as Nicola Sturgeon’s top minister, a safe pair of hands for her number one priority. Alas the subsequent four years have been a series of failures, let downs and U-turns, long before the pandemic hit.

This is illustrated by another little heralded publication last week, the evaluation of the Attainment Challenge Fund. This effort to close the attainment gap, is not just Nicola Sturgeon’s priority, but her ‘sacred obligation.’ The evaluation is dismal, concluding that ‘quantitative measures of the attainment gap do not yet show a consistent pattern of improvement.’ So, after four years and hundreds of millions of pounds, no consistent improvement can be detected. That is no record of success, rather an indictment of failure.

Meanwhile, if the return of schools was challenging, the return of universities was chaos, with students quarantined in halls of residence and subjected to guidance by twitter which changed three times over a single weekend.

In the background lie more problems into which Mr Swinney is sleepwalking.

Scotland’s outdoor education centres are beginning to close one by one, as their pleas for help while residential courses are banned go unheard.

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Then there is the Redress Bill, to provide payments to survivors of historic child abuse. At its heart is a requirement for those who use the scheme to waive any rights to seek justice in the civil courts. Survivors are understandably furious, and the explanation, that this is an incentive for the organisations responsible for their abuse to contribute to the redress fund by limiting their liability, has only enraged them further.

There are difficult issues too, with evidential requirements and the limited scope of the scheme. I hope that Mr Swinney will be flexible and fix this Bill because to fail to do so would be an unforgiveable betrayal of survivors who have had to wait so long. The problem is that for no good reason, having had years to bring this forward, he has left it to the last minute, with little parliamentary time remaining. His track record on getting Bills through parliament is not good either, having had to withdraw his ‘flagship’ Education Bill and losing the named person bill through legislative stubbornness.

The truth is, it is hard to think of a ball the education secretary has not let slip through those ‘safe’ hands.

In August I argued in parliament that we cannot have confidence in an Education Secretary trying to do that job part time because he is also the DFM with onerous pandemic responsibilities. He is charged too with handling the ever more convoluted Salmond inquiry for the government, since the First Minister has recused herself.

On reflection, nothing since then has changed my mind.