AN East Renfrewshire politician has clashed with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over claims her education secretary secretly ordered an inquiry into falling pass rates at Higher exams.

Jackson Carlaw, MSP for Eastwood, pressed Ms Sturgeon about an investigation requested by John Swinney in the wake of the Higher pass rate falling from 76.8 per cent to 74.8 per cent last year.

The Scottish Conservative leader claimed that, in September, Mr Swinney "privately commissioned his officials to probe the increasing failure rate at Highers."

However, Ms Sturgeon responded by declaring that, on November 27, Mr Swinney had informed Holyrood's education and skills committee of the analysis of the 2019 SQA results that he intended to carry out.

She added: "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, however, described Ms Sturgeon's answer as "slippery."

"It's not just Conservatives, it seems that the whole world misunderstood what the Cabinet Secretary was trying to say", he added.

"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."

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Ms Sturgeon maintained her deputy had told MSPs on the Education 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."

She said: "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."