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Analysis: A-level debacle exposes Westminster’s unwillingness to learn lessons

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson.
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson.

‘One of the biggest scandals in the history of devolution’, so said the Scottish Tories in relation to John Swinney’s handling of the school results row.

The party deleted the comment from social media when the exact same debacle began to play out in England, but they were correct – it is a scandal that in a devolved system one nation seemingly cannot learn from the mistakes of another.

Gavin Williamson, England’s education secretary, watched on for days as his Holyrood counterpart was engulfed in a wave of anger from parents, schools and pupils as 124,000 students saw their grades marked down by statistical modelling.

As we know, after days of protest and anguish there was an embarrassing U-turn, apology and a narrowly survived no-confidence vote.

From the sidelines Williamson, a former chief whip, sought to twist the knife and accused Scottish ministers of “degrading” this year’s exam results.

England’s algorithm for determining results would be better and would work, we were told. There’ll be “no U-turn, no change”, a confident education secretary told reporters over the weekend.

As predicted, the algorithm did not work and after days of protest and anguish there was an identical U-turn, apology and now a chorus of people demanding Williamson’s head.

Why didn’t Westminster take heed from the events in Scotland? We learned from Downing Street on Monday that not even a phone call, at a senior level at least, had taken place with Nicola Sturgeon’s administration about the results fiasco and what lessons could have perhaps been learned.

If a conversation had taken place then hundreds of thousands of students south of the border could have been spared the anxiety endured by young people in Scotland in the previous week.

John Swinney MSP.

It is not the first time Downing Street has shown an unwillingness to learn from Scotland. When the first minister started advising that people should use face coverings, Matt Hancock said there was “weak science” to support their use. Now they’re mandatory in enclosed spaces in England.

Upon entering Number 10 last July, Boris Johnson told us he was the prime minister of an “awesome foursome”. These last few weeks have not been awesome or an example of four nations working together on a major issue.

It is not the first time, either, whether it is procuring protective equipment or establishing post-Brexit trading arrangements, the system for inter-governmental discussion is broken. With so many major issues on the horizon, this is an area that needs urgent attention.

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