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HMI under fire for failure

THE INSPECTORATE, and particularly its role in implementing the Higher Still reforms, comes in for its expected strong criticism. The education committee recommends that HMI be stripped of its role in developing policy and heading educational developments, a step which Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, has already anticipated and taken.

Although the report does not single out Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, by name, it notes that he chairs the Higher Still implementation group and the Higher Still liaison group, and that the chief officer of the Higher Still Development Unit is line-managed by a chief HMI.

The report says that, given this HMI involvement, "the committee could not understand why HMI did not ensure that they were better informed about SQA's difficulties, particularly in the light of the concerns which were raised at liaison group meetings and the information made available when they conducted their inspection of the implementation of Higher Still within schools".

The committee believes that Learning and Teaching Scotland, which has taken over from the former curriculum council, should have been in charge of Higher Still, with HMI providing quality assurance.

Instead, the inspectorate acted like "an independent force" accountable to no one except the Minister.

In its most pointed passage, the report concludes: "It is clear to the committee that the design and implementation of the Higher Still package is open to criticism. HMI and the Higher Still Development Unit manifestly failed to recognise and respond adequately to substantial concerns with regard to the practical implications of the modular structure, the internal assessment, the requirement for unit entry and the administrative burden of recording which arose from the design of the programme.

"It is clear to the committee that HMI was so deeply involved with the design and implementation of the programme that it became very difficult, if not impossible, for HMI's advie to ministers and civil servants to be detached, objective and impartial. There was an inherent conflict of interest."

The committee recommends that no new Higher Still developments should get under way until the 2001 exam diet has been run successfully. It also says the curriculum has become assessment-driven and that Higher Still assessment should be simplified so it is not an undue burden on teachers.

The Scottish Executive and ministers are also seen as having failed but are not judged so harshly, except in the "minority paragraphs" from the SNP which were highly critical of Sam Galbraith, the former Education MInister, but which were not supported by the majority of the education committee.

The committee was unanimous, however, in finding that, despite increasing intervention from the Executive, it was not effective in resolving the problems.

The committee says it was "surprising" that, having received advance warning from the SQA that the exams were in trouble, it did not take steps to ensure pupils and parents were informed that any delay in the issuing of results would be temporary and would be resolved.

In the most unwelcome remarks it has for the Executive, the report adds: "Taking into consideration offers of assistance to SQA by the Scottish Executive on over six occasions, the breakdown in normal working relationships between the two organisations and the private doubts that Scottish Executive officials were having about SQA's ability to deliver the exams accurately and on time, albeit accepting that it was not possible to rely upon SQA to estimate the scale of the problem, the committee is surprised that Ministers did not take further action to deal with the impact that the delay would have on confidence in the Scottish examination system."

The committee urges the Executive to review the actions it took before the results were issued and should also clarify the powers which ministers have to intervene in the operation of the SQA.

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