Nicola Sturgeon’s government is “losing its way” on Scottish education, Douglas Ross said on Thursday. It came after Ms Sturgeon refused to say whether pupils would sit traditional exams next year when the pandemic is over.

The Scottish Tory leader said the First Minister had left pupils “in limbo” after she said they would need to wait until August for answers on next year’s assessments.

He also highlighted how three weeks ago Ms Sturgeon insisted she had full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams body before announcing it would be scrapped.

Speaking during the final First Minister’s Questions before Holyrood’s summer break, he said the country’s education system was a “cornerstone of what makes us Scottish” but the SNP “no longer seems to value traditions that have served us well”.

Ms Sturgeon insisted it was “perfectly consistent” to back the SQA and also want it reformed, saying careful thought would be given to whether exams are used in 2022.

However, she said she would not make a “knee-jerk, ill-considered” decision while the country is still in the grip of the pandemic.

The fiery exchanges came after an official assessment conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) praised the ethos of Scotland’s curriculum but highlighted major problems with how it had been implemented.

SNP ministers responded by scrapping the SQA, which was fiercely criticised over an exams fiasco last year and an assessments debacle this year, and unveiling a more stringent school inspection regime.

Although formal exams are likely to continue in some form, Scottish government insiders told The Telegraph that in future far less weight could be attached to traditional assessments used to award vital qualifications such as National 5s and Highers.

Mr Ross told the Holyrood chamber that Professor Lindsay Paterson, one of Scotland’s most respected educationalists, had noted “that it is unlikely that a system that relied wholly on coursework would ever command public confidence”.

Speaking after the exchanges, he said: “This SNP government has lost its way on education. They say one thing and do another, with no real vision of where they’re going or how to get there.

“Pupils and teachers have been left in limbo on whether the First Minister intends to try and return to normality and hold traditional exams next year.”

He added: “If the SNP decide to remove the focus on fundamentals, stop valuing core knowledge and ditch exams, then they’re abandoning the very things that made Scotland’s schools great.”

Exams have been cancelled for the last two years due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon insisted she retained confidence in the SQA’s ability to assess pupils’ qualifications this year despite her decision to scrap it, and a second OECD report scheduled for August would help inform whether formal exams continued next year.

She added: “If I was to stand here and decide what is to happen for exams next year then people across the country would criticise me for doing that.

“Instead, as the Education Secretary set out in parliament, we will consider this as Covid develops over the summer so schools know what the situation is going to be.”

An astonishingly arrogant performance from a distinctly average politician

By Alan Cochrane

What gives Nicola Sturgeon the idea that she’s some sort of international-grade stateswoman? The question arose following her last Question Time before the summer recess, when she posed as some form of omnipotent public performer who’s ranged against opponents who are not really in her league.

It was an astonishingly arrogant performance from a distinctly average politician with a patchy record in most areas of policy and a completely shoddy record in important areas such as education and the economy.

But when challenged on the former by Douglas Ross on Thursday she accused him of not understanding the “complexities” of education policy and attacked him for his refusal to join her in an all-party approach to the problems.

This from easily the most partisan and non-collegiate political operator in these islands; someone who has some ability of the spoken word but uses it to denigrate the work of schoolchildren and their mentor – a former policeman of Asian descent – who’ve written a hymn of praise to the United Kingdom. That’s not someone with whom many people would wish to join hands.

If you don’t believe me, consider this example of her high-flown rhetoric from Thursday. Ms Sturgeon said: ‘The longer I am in politics, the more frustrated I get at the inability of our political discourse, for which we are all responsible, to engage in nuanced arguments that are not just binary black or white.”

Got that? And yet she wouldn’t know a nuanced argument if one hit her between the eyes. 

Mr Ross said country’s education system was a 'cornerstone of what makes us Scottish'

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell

There are clearly a great deal of frustrations in being so clever because she went on: “I also get frustrated at the inability to take serious issues seriously in our parliamentary chamber.”

What she meant was that she gets fed up when lesser mortals – such as Mr Ross who’s clearly succeeded in getting right up her nose since becoming Tory leader – refuse to accept her one basic premise: that she’s generally right in whatever she’s doing.  

What put her straight – on to that higher plane of discourse from which she prefers to operate – was Mr Ross reminding her that three weeks ago she had said that she had full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority and yet this week she had to scrap it.

What happened in the interim, he dared to ask.

If I heard her correctly, and I admit I’m probably another who’s not bright enough to understand her, she said she expressed confidence in the authority as a way of reassuring parents and pupils. But following recommendations from the OECD she’d decided to replace it.

Then Ms Sturgeon added: “All of that, taken in the round, is how people would expect a grown-up, responsible government to behave, and that is how this government will always conduct itself.”

There we have it. The SNP’s constant difficulty in getting just about anything right on the education front has been the action of a “grown-up responsible government”. Rather than, as Mr Ross claimed, another example of a government that had lost its way in education, and which “says one thing and does another with no vision of where it is going or how it gets there”.

She did not give Mr Ross the pledge he wanted – that traditional exams would come back for pupils next year – although the First Minister did agree that they were very important but that she was awaiting another OECD report in August.

But in spite of his criticisms, Ms Sturgeon clearly couldn’t resist spelling out the essential truth as follows: “The only reason why I am standing here as First Minister, is that a matter of weeks ago, the Scottish people re-elected me in a landslide election victory. They… decided that they trust this Government to take Scotland forward on all these matters.”

She almost sounded as if she couldn’t believe her good fortune. I certainly can’t.