Emperors with no clothes

15th September 2000 at 01:00
The centralisers and the modernisers have come unstuck with the SQA's

fall from grace, says Willis Pickard

TEACHERS may yet find that in the long term the examinations crisis is their best help. So far-reaching are the implications that the power balance in education has shifted significantly.

For years teachers have listened to demands to be more self-critical and efficient, to be better planners and record-keepers. Central government has imposed all sorts of bureaucratic procedures. Socks were to be pulled up.

Ministers and their officials have commanded attention because, on the whole, the machinery of government and its agencies has itself worked well. The civil service has high standing. The national examining body established a worldwide reputation for meticulous attention to individual candidates.

A hole has been blown in the Executive's reputation. The Education Minister is undoubtedly right when he says that he received repeated assurances from the Scottish Qualifications Authority that problems with Higher Still and its machinery were minor and contained. But no longer can he claim that schools must be brought up to efficiency standards devised by the government machine.

As a former surgeon and health minister he may, as he has continually reminded teacher audiences, have known the mortality rate of every surgeon in Scotland. He did not know that his exam system was riding for a fall.

Sam Galbraith's administrative staff had no more reason than he to question the SQA's assurances. After all, Ron Tuck, the authority's departed chief executive, told The TES Scotland that only on the day that the results went out did he learn the scale of the problems unsolved by the group among his officers who appeared to behave like ostriches.

But the Inspectorate cannot escape censure. Its purpose is to offer dispassionate professional advice to ministers. It is in and out of schools and colleges not just to judge how well they are operating but to see how new developments are working in practice. HM Inspectors have driven the Higher Still programme. Repeatedly up and down the country they have rebutted teachers' criticisms. Mr Tuck made his reputation as chief inspector with responsibility for the new courses and exams, and that no doubt led to his transfer to the nascent SQA.

The absence of Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, in Australia when he might otherwise have had to be defending HMI's role on television (a medium he favoured to berate an unfortunate secondary school) was a matter of chance. But on his return he will find his department under fire. When inspectors visit schools and pontificate at conference, teachers are bound to complain: "We told you so. There were problems with Higher Still and you did not pay attention."

HMI will continue to argue for tighter monitoring, target-setting and performance indicators. But it will sound less credible. The SQA failed only three years into its life. HMI has suffered the worst dent in its invincibility since it was founded in 1840.

Mr Osler will have to concentrate on establishing clear water between Higher Still and the manpower and technical failings at the SQA. Critics of the programme will not make his life easy. At the very least they will seek to reduce the amount of internal assessment - and to do so quickly because teachers need to know what is expected of candidates this session.

Like the Education Minister, Mr Osler must not sacrifice the principles of Higher Still - certification for pupils and students of all abilities and a bringing together of the vocational and academic traditions. Retreating to the tried but tired ways of the old Highers would be no solution.

With the setting up of the Parliament and the reform of local government, the Inspectorate has sought to accumulate power. Now, without wanting to return to the days before O grade, when the inspectors ran the exams, Mr Osler might have expected to make hay with the SQA's embarrassment and win more of an overarching supervisory role. But Mr Galbraith cannot be pleased with the quality of advice he has recently received. An SQA reconstructed by businessmen and management consultants is likely to pay less attention to HMI than Mr Tuck did.

Teachers have the opportunity to reassert their professionalism. They did everything asked of them last session. Mr Galbraith has praised them and apologised for the problems heaped on them. But the tale of missed warning signs has its lesson for teachers as for everyone else.

Their concerns and complaints went unheeded because they have cried wolf too often in the past. Many of them, or their predecessors, opposed the raising of the school-leaving age. They delayed Standard grade for years. They fussed about the 5-14 programme even though it was largely devised by their own colleagues.

A profession with a reputation for dragging its heels was bound to meet the response: you are always trying to block progress, and we (government, curriculum writers, examiners) have to go ahead knowing that problems will be overcome.

Unfortunately, this time the problems remained and led to the crisis. Scottish education will take time to recover - and as it rebuilds its reputation, the forces that determine who wields power and influence will be found to have shifted ineluctably.

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