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Look beyond the sacrificial lamb

AFTER the grief come the conspiracy theories, the accusations, the political outfall - and the grief goes on. While a variety of committees of inquiry are set up, and the First Minister tries ineffectively to explain the situation to the visiting Prime Minister, young Scots are even now losing their opportunities at English universities.

Others face great uncertainty and possibly needless resits because of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's incompetence. A whole generation is seeing one of the few remaining pillars of social immutability crumble and flake before its eyes.

More than one newspaper is campaigning on a daily basis (and to what end?) for the curious notion that somehow things will take a turn for the better if the pathetic and bedraggled form of the Children and Education Minister is swept from the stage like rubbish from the floor of a kerry-oot.

Can anyone explain why this particular lamb is due for sacrifice, when the minister actually responsible for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (Henry McLeish) has so far been spared even one television grilling?

Now to declare an interest. I too was a humble member of the SQA from its start in 1997, my term ending last Christmas. That body is indeed large and cumbersome precisely because it has representation from every single education body that matters. Here you will find directors of education, primary and secondary heads, all the teaching unions, local authorities, universities and colleges, parents, HMI, the CBI and industry, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

It is true what an eminent headteacher member said recently in answer to press questioning on the role of board members in the debacle. The right questions were asked, repeatedly and searchingly. Smooth reassurances were always the same: the difficulties of a complex new system are being successfully tackled; it will be ll right on the night.

Of course it is easy to see clearly with hindsight. Perhaps the problem started with the almost universal rejection by the education establishment of the nub of the Howie report in its original form. Professor John Howie's committee recommended a three-year ScotBac course from age 15 to 18 for the academically inclined, and a parallel vocational course, with emphasis on the kind of status and quality of provision found in countries such as Germany and Holland.

The Conservative government of the day had little choice but to adapt and alter Howie in the face of professional reaction. The result was "Higher Still: Opportunity for All", an over-arching system which may yet prove a bridge too far. Again, the design of the new system could have been tendered or contracted out to a consortium of universities and others. It wasn't. Design by committee ruled. Massive national consultation at every tiny step was chosen. The result became a virtual industry with unwieldy structures, huge numbers of people, almost unbelievable bureaucracy and laughable jargon.

But the laughter becomes hollow when you reread the literature. Here are two printed SQA quotes to make your hair curl: "Our role is to ensure that rigorous standards are maintained"; "The SQA is ultimately responsible for standards, not teachers." At a time when teachers are suggesting that even the latest SQA updates are suspect, fast and urgent action for pupils is needed. Post-mortems on simplifying unit assessments will come later.

For this year, school and teacher assessments of pupils must be allowed to stand, with or without school remarking of scripts. Certificates must be validated and appeals carried out at school level without further delay.

No one else can be trusted to do this with personal knowledge of the pupils and in the timeframe available.

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