End the cosy consensus

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Holyrood must end the complacency that was a recurring theme during the

exams fiasco, says Brian Monteith

AFTER two and a half months of taking oral and written evidence about this autumn's exam crisis, the Parliament's education committee published its findings last week. No single person responsible for the delivery of Higher Still has been made the scapegoat - but no one escapes criticism either.

Surprisingly for such a contentious affair the committee was unanimous in 96 per cent of its deliberations. Some 249 paragraphs of evidence and 56 recommendations, many of them strongly worded and often controversial, were agreed without a great deal of debate.

Where the committee failed to reach a consensus was on the degree to which Sam Galbraith and his deputy, Peter Peacock, could have intervened. I always had my doubts that ministers would be shown to be directly to blame for the exam shambles and so it has passed.

The failure to deliver all of the exam results accurately and on time was primarily the fault of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Not only did it fail to estimate adequately the task of data processing, it reduced the resources available to handle the mammoth task and did not have in place any contingency for error.

These flaws were bad enough but it also introduced its new computer system during the same year and made a hash of its previously reliable recruitment of markers. The SQA board, full of the educational great and good, often seen on the pages of The TES Scotland, accepted repeated assurances that the "can do" organisation was on top of its task. No direct blame for ministers here then.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate, in charge of the design and implementation allowed the flagship policy of the Executive to become inherently over-complicated, creating greater administrative demands for teachers and the SQA. The SQA kept dropping the ball but the teachers didn't. HMI failed to see this, or worse, wasn't prepared to say what it had seen. No direct blame for ministers here then.

Many lessons came out of the inquiry but I would like to mention two that have barely been commented upon. One is the danger from complacency that political consensus can breed.

For example, the consensus that the former Scottish Examination Board and Scottish Vocational Education Council should be merged rather than take the tougher decision of giving the task to one or the other.

The consensus that if there were problems in Higher Still they would be in its teaching, with no thought for the marking and certification. The problems didn't so much come "out of let field" as from under our feet. No direct blame for ministers here then.

The other lesson was the danger from complacency that cosy familiarity can breed. It was not surprising that HMI should be given the task of implementing Higher Still but it was complacent to allow it to report on its own management of such a fundamental reform.

Better still would have been to allow the then Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum to handle the implementation and let HMI report on its progress. Then we really would have heard about the problems being faced. No direct blame for ministers here then.

The SQA and HMI are run at arm's length from ministers and for good reason. However, there comes a point where the number of reassurances that ministers are receiving must suggest that all is not well. Following the release of advice from ministers' officials we can see that on at least three occasions the relationship between the Executive and the SQA deteriorated, causing serious doubts at Victoria Quay.

By July 25, at a meeting between the Scottish Executive and the SQA, Mr Galbraith advised Mr Peacock not to attend the SQA's press conference for the launch of the Higher Still exam certificates on August 9. I believe this was the telling moment when Mr Galbraith, on the basis of the then limited knowledge in his possession, realised there was a crisis looming that the Executive should be distanced from.

Interpreting Mr Galbraith's motive was where the committee split down party lines, with only the SNP backing the Conservative conclusion and the coalition parties voting it down.

But I believe that anyone without a partisan association, reading the relevant evidence presented in the report, would reach the same view as I did that Mr Galbraith's handling of the affair merited stronger criticism.

On August 5, Mr Galbraith went on holiday to the Western Isles and no communication strategy was put in place to deal with the issuing of incomplete or incorrect certificates. Instead, and despite all the doubts that ministers had about the organisation's abilities, the SQA was left to handle the crisis.

Some Liberal Democcrat backbenchers may feel uncomfortable, but the coalition Government has a majority and for the foreseeable future Sam Galbraith will remain a Minister of the Crown. If anything comes out of the education committee's report it will not be Mr Galbraith's head but it may well be that in future more and harder questions are asked before we reach such a state of denial.

Brian Monteith MSP is Conservative education spokesman in the Scottish Parliament.

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