Commentary - Boston: a career beset by controversy

19th December 2008 at 00:00

He arrived in the midst of a crisis, and tendered his resignation after another. To many, Ken Boston's arrival and departure from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority speaks volumes about the pressures involved with running England's always controversial examination system.

The 65-year-old Australian was a controversial figure in his own right, dividing opinions sharply. This extended beyond his salary and benefits package, which at around Pounds 330,000 a year was one of education's largest.

Dr Boston was headhunted in 2002 from his post as director of education and training in New South Wales. On his first day, he had to visit the BBC Newsnight studios to answer questions on the botched introduction of new A-levels that summer.

Since then, the difficulties facing the QCA have barely let up, including another marking fiasco affecting key stage 3 English tests in 2004. This saw Jonathan Ford, the head of the National Assessment Agency who reported to Dr Boston, lose his job.

But Dr Boston was a popular figure with heads. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said his resignation this week was a "tragedy for the education system".

Dr Boston, who appointed the teacher-friendly Mick Waters as his head of curriculum, has also been popular as a man with enough experience to advise ministers frankly on teachers' concerns.

This has included pushing, persistently if cautiously, for reform of the testing system. Last year, he told MPs that test data was being used for too many purposes. His gentle advocacy of a Tomlinson-style overarching diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels is also likely to have won him friends in staffrooms.

Shortly after arriving, Dr Boston described the exams regime as a "cottage industry", and set about reforming it. His supporters will say that, on GCSEs and A-levels, that has been largely a success.

But the boards - who in general are not fans of the QCA - will also claim some credit, while others argue that the "cottage industry" functioned effectively.

Dr Boston's reputation as a "serial reorganiser" - there have been at least two staff revisions at QCA on his watch - also ruffled feathers.

A former employee said they had a saying: "Never go for lunch with Ken, because it means you won't be coming back".

Dr Boston's recent culling of subject experts from the QCA's ranks was also deeply unpopular with some subject associations.

That said, the QCA will shortly be replaced with a new organisation which seems likely to be closer to the Government. In that sense, it is even more understandable why organisations such as ASCL are mourning his departure.

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