A salutary lesson for our political leaders

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Regular readers of this column will have shared the anxiety of Andrew Brown, who had a band 9 (abject failure) for his physics, two weeks ago. Just seven days later, his command of physics had inexplicably improved and he now has an A pass.

At least aspects of physics such as the speed of sound and the theory of relativity have the decency to remain unchanged over a period of time. Not so the vagaries of Scottish Qualifications Authority results. Six more Holy Rood pupils now have Higher physics passes than had just a week ago.

The past few days have seen stories of untold incongruity. It would appear that some pupils have succeeded in exams they didn't sit, while many more have results which do not nearly match their expectations. Some have been awarded grades which have then been changed, only to subsequently find they have metamorphosed back to the original level.

The Children and Education Minister, Sam Galbraith, and the acting chief executive of the SQA, Bill Morton, came under heavy bombardment on the BBC programme Failing the Test. "This is a data management problem," they repeated unconvincingly. "The standard of marking is as high as ever."

The audience contained a number of time-hardened customers who had serious misgivings about that assertion. David Cooney, a history teacher from the large village known to Edinburgh people as The West, gave a dispassionate but compelling account of his experience. The millennium markers had fallen short of some of the standards zealously maintained over the previous century.

The appeals process is set to break all records. Holy Rood will make more appeals than ever and many of these will be for Standard grade, where we appear to have some quirky outcomes. Some parents have been desperately trying to push the appeals process forward because their children are waiting for critical results for university and college entrance, but our only information to date is that appeals have been delayed.

It is in nobody's interest to have the SQA discredited or for pupils and parents to feel that the exam system is shambolic. In spite of their exasperation with recent events, the education community must be wary of throwing away a valued tradition in a moment of hasty reaction.

Much of the coverage of the exams crisis has dealt with naming, blaming and shaming. Teachers may be tempted to suggest that this is a process with which they are familiar, as year after year their efforts are undermined by the publication of unsophisticated statistics, but the dismissal of politicians will not eradicate the problems. Bob McKay, former director of education, is credited with the comment: "If you are stripped naked in public, your first instinct is not to pull your socks up." Seeing the tables turned may provide momentary gratification, but will do little to resolve matters.

However, education ministers of the future may hesitate to rush headlong to the press with populist anti-teacher invective if they ponder the vicissitudes of summer 2000. Many of those who strut the national stage will have learned that if you are prone to adverse criticism of others, you have to be doubly sure that there is no grit on your own doorstep.

Targets will have a whole new connotation, as schools reflect on the previously undiscovered notion that we may be the only part of the examination system that meets its objectives. Perhaps next year, we will be allowed a 5,000 margin for error in achieving our targets.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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