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Galbraith leaves exam paper blank

SAM played it again when he appeared before MSPs this week, singing from the same hymn sheet as his former education department officials and senior chief inspector.

Last session was going fine, despite the teething difficulties of Higher Still, until the Scottish Qualifications Authority cocked it up late on, by which time it was too late to intervene.

Courses were taught, pupils learnt, exams were sat and "I would like to congratulate the teachers on that", Sam Galbraith, the former Education Minister, confided. It went wrong for a significant number of students once the SQA got down to handling the data. But for most, the new system worked.

"All the representations we ever got were concerned with learning and teaching and there was virtually no one who said the SQA would not be able to cope," Mr Galbraith said.

The new Environment Minister was, as Mike Russell, the SNP's shadow education minister, put it, "demob happy" during one of the final sessions of the parliamentary inquiry into the exams fiasco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's nippy-sweetie, in her farewell education committee contribution, demanded to know why if everything was largely successful and Sam was not culpable, he was no longer minister.

"I don't think I need to bother answering that question," he retorted. "True to form, it greatly demeans her position."

Dr Sam was in relaxed form, often slumping in his seat, hands in pockets, beaming with confidence. Was Higher Still implemented before it was ready, Ian Jenkins, Liberal Democrat, suggested. "No," Dr Sam replied. It had been introduced over six years and even Higher Englsh had been further delayed.

Mr Jenkins tried again. Who was going to take the crucial decisions about Higher Still? The Inspectorate? The ghost of Douglas Osler, HMI senior chief inspector, drifted across the chamber as Dr Sam responded.

"Her Majesty's Inspectors do not take any decisions on policy. All the policy will be made by the minister," he asserted to the relief of his senior chief, who, coincidentally, had told MSPs a similar tale. It was one they never swallowed.

Cathy Peattie, Labour's education vice-convener, wondered if it was time to review HMI's role in advising on policy. "No," Dr Sam replied. It was "a false perception" that HMI made policy and he urged MSPs to back off.

Labour's Cathy Jamieson thought problems should have been brought to the minister's attention earlier. "Again, the SQA is an arm's-length organisation with a board," Dr Sam insisted for the umpteenth time before adding: "In my view, too large a board."

He was "not thirled" to the idea of an exams commissioner or czar, although the idea had been floated by ministers.

Pressed whether the board should still be in existence, the Environment Minister replied that it would have been "ludicrous" to sack the members and chairman in the midst of an emerging crisis.

"You have an informal relationship with them and if there are problems and issues you let them feel the minister's breath on their collar," he revealed.

On a parting note, he accepted there was merit in the terrier-like Mr Russell's suggestion that exam scripts should be returned to schools. "Yip," Dr Sam replied. So farewell then . . .

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