Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has defended her education secretary over claims that he secretly ordered an inquiry into falling pass rates at Higher, arguing that "the Tories are incapable of paying attention".
Scottish Conservative acting leader Jackson Carlaw started the opening First Minister's Questions of the new year by asking about a review requested by John Swinney after the Higher pass rate fell from 76.8 per cent in 2018 to 74.8 per cent in 2019.
The first minister said that Mr Swinney – who is also deputy first minister – had told the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee about his plans for a review and that the Scottish government would "publish findings as and when we have them".
Background: Higher pass rate falls
Quick read: Swinney hits out at ‘culture of negativity’
International data: What does Pisa tell us about Scottish education?
On suggestions that Mr Swinney had "secretly" called for the review, she said the Conservatives were "flatly wrong and I don't think that is acceptable".
Drop in Higher pass rates
Mr Carlaw said: "In September, while publicly berating opposition critics, the cabinet secretary for education and skills privately commissioned his officials to probe the increasing failure rate in Higher exams."
Ms Sturgeon responded: "The deputy first minister actually informed the Education and Skills Committee of this Parliament on November 27 of the analysis of the 2019 SQA results that he intended to carry out.
"I don't think that the deputy first minister can be held responsible if the Tories are incapable of paying attention to what's going on in Parliament."
Mr Carlaw described Ms Sturgeon's answer as "slippery".
He said: "In August last year, we learned that the number of students achieving A to C at Higher had fallen.
"Mr Swinney promptly attacked us for daring to suggest that something might be wrong with his handling of education.
"Then over Christmas, we learned that he had – at the same time – asked his officials to find out what's going wrong."
Referencing a letter to Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, Mr Carlaw added: "Mr Swinney declared that he doesn't need to explain himself to this Parliament because there's nothing new to say."
Ms Sturgeon maintained that her deputy had told MSPs on the Education and Skills Committee and acknowledged "we know in Scottish education there is more work to do, which is why it remains the top priority of this government".
"Jackson Carlaw has stood up in this chamber and suggested that John Swinney secretly commissioned an analysis of the 2019 exam results..
"John Swinney has pointed out the fact – and I have done it again today – that actually he informed the Education and Skills Committee on November 27 that he had asked for such an analysis."