A bodge-up's a bodge-up in anybody's lexicon

15th September 2000 at 01:00
'A new Higher Still language was created - and this in a country where most Scots think that O grades were called O levels'

Fiasco (fee-AS-koh) noun: a complete failure of any kind. (French, from Italian fare fiasco, to make a bottle, fail, from fiasco, bottle (translation of French bouteille, bottle, error, used by the French for linguistic errors committed by Italian actors on the 18th-century French stage), from Late Latin flasco.)

YES, it's about the Scottish Qualifications Authority, or rather the SQA fiasco. Everyone calls it that - newspapers, television, MSPs, ministers. A Tory spokesman called it the worst Scottish educational disaster in living memory and though there would be other strong contenders for that title it is undoubtedly damaging to the reputation of Scottish education.

How did this fiasco come about? How far back do you want to go? Almost from the outset teachers and lecturers have been counselling caution about Higher Still's implementation. Under the Tories, there had been numerous hold-ups and when this Government came to power there were calls for further delay amid fears of lack of curriculum material, confusion over assessment banks and, in particular, real concerns that the newly created SQA's systems - computer and non-computer - would be unable to cope with the changes.

How much of this fiasco or disaster can be attributable to Higher Still and how much to problems in the SQA itself is difficult now to be certain about, but obviously both contributed. A major factor has been the complexity of Higher Still. I do remember at the time wondering why it had to be so difficult. Staff in FE who during the 1980s and 1990s had to learn and then just as quickly forget a new world of different systems, procedures and language found Higher Still particularly complex. A new language was created - and this in a country where most Scots think O grades were called O levels.

So how would employers understand Higher Still? How would students understand it? How would boards of management? It isn't easy. <> Ron Tuck carried the can for all this. How responsible the former chief executive was will now be determined by the inquiries which have been set up, but I do wonder how many others considered resigning, too. I understand that in the days before Mr Tuck went he had felt the ground to be shifting under his feet as information he had understood to be accurate turned out to be flawed. We all know that feeling. However, no sooner had he left than a new interim chief executive was parachuted in from the Scottish Enterprise network to save the day.

I heard Bill Morton on the radio and wondered then how he could be so sure about the accuracy of what he was saying and how far he could rely on what he was being told from within the SQA.

A day or two later I heard him rebut the suggestion that there had been changes to the quality procedures. I had previously been told by a colleague who is an experienced marker and had marked one of the Higher papers this summer that in fact there had been significant changes to the marking system - including the abandonment of the sampling system, changes to the experience required of markers and to the compulsory attendance at examiners' meetings. This does not indicate to me that there were no changes to quality procedures. Perhaps Mr Morton should have spoken to some markers before he made his pronouncement.

I expect all this will come out in the inquiry. Perhaps the computer system will turn out to be the main culprit - it wouldn't be the first time.

Coincidentally a similar story appeared this week when the computer system processing applications for European Social Fund Objective 3 monies was found to be mangling the data. This is simply part of another fiasco relating to ESF funding as it affects FE and others. It won't get the publicity of the SQA story but for those people denied an education because of the lack of European funding it certainly will be a disaster.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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