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Higher Still not to blame, insists Osler

David Henderson and Neil Munro report on the latest evidence from the continuing inquest into the SQA fiasco

HAD it not been for the "cataclysmic events" in August caused by internal problems in the Scottish Qualifications Authority the first year of Higher Still would have been hailed a success, Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, told sceptical MSPs this week.

"I really do believe Higher Still in classrooms was being successful up to the point young people completed their exam scripts in the classroom. After that, something went wrong," Mr Osler insisted.

The Scottish Executive's top education adviser declined to shoulder major responsibility for last session's exam fiasco during evidence on Monday to the Parliament's education committee in Hamilton, and pinned the blame largely on the SQA.

Decisions about the implementation of Higher Still had been taken by ministers based on advice from several quarters, including the wider educational community. There had been collective agreement to proceed.

In yet another bravura public performance, Mr Osler said members of HMI had raised concerns about Higher Still throughout the year but had been constantly reassured by the SQA. They had asked the right questions based on the knowledge they had. The problems that eventually sank the authority were not the ones that had been raised during the year.

Higher Still was entirely deliverable but for the mishandling of information in the SQA. "I believe otherwise there would have been progress towards the Scottish Executive review of the first year of Higher Still and a number of necessary refinements and adjustments would have taken place, always necessary in any exam system, and there would actually have been a fair amount of congratulation to the profession for having taken us this far.

"I do not think anybody has ever suggested the problem happened before the examination hall. It was once the scripts left."

His view was based on evidence from inspections in 55 secondaries, results from consultations and group discussions involving the major stakeholders.

Were it not for data mishandling, MSPs would have been noting that 81 per cent of sat Highers were new and had been successully delivered in classrooms, that standards of learning and teaching were better than in previous courses, and that 40,000 young people had qualifications at Intermediate levels when otherwise they would have had no coherent record of success.

"Had this not happened in the summer, we wouldn't be sitting here questioning whether Higher Still was full of fundamental problems. We would actually be congratulating the profession for delivering a very high standard in a complex programme."

Mr Osler denied that Higher Still had been implemented in haste after the Howie report was published in 1992. Ministers issued Opportunity for All, the document that heralded the initiative in 1994 and aimed to introduce the reforms between 1999-2004.

"I hardly think that's rushing things and there is more generally an issue in education about the length of time it takes to deliver new developments. There is always a tension between proper planning and bringing a desirable new development to young people," Mr Osler said.

Crucial decisions about Higher Still, including the principles and time-scale, were endorsed by unions and others in December 1998. "All of these decisions belong to all of us, not just the Inspectorate," Mr Osler said.

The Inspectorate must have known about the difficulties, Cathy Peattie, Labour's vice-convener, insisted.

Mr Osler admitted that HMI knew of problems but said there was no indication of cataclysm ahead. "On every occasion when experts were involved in the SQA, the SQA satisfied the experts."

Concerns were raised in late 1997 and early 1998 after schools complained about being unable to cope with the awards processing system. In April 1997, late arrival of national assessment bank materials was raised "on a number of occasions". Last November concerns were put to the SQA about difficulties in contacting the authority. In January, HMI was first told of the setting up of a group to co-ordinate arrangements.

In February, the SQA issued advice to schools "at our request" to respond to these issues, Mr Osler said. "That is the trail of our knowledge and what we did about it. The SQA always satisfied the experts and we are not experts in data processing."

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