Four questions the SQA must ask itself;Platform;Opinion

4th June 1999 at 01:00
The exam system is open to a charge of institutionalised racism, say Andrew Johnson and Stuart Ainsworth

* "What the Lawrence process, the inquiry process, did was to open the eyes of the white community to what it can be like to suffer the unfairness in our society simply from being black or Asian. We have got to change that." - Jack Straw, Home Secretary * "No blood wounds, no visible damage. Nothing you could put a finger on and yet anger welled up." - Dilys Rose THE Scottish Qualifications Authority recently required all candidates in the Standard grade English General paper to consider and analyse a graphic description of an overtly racist incident taken from a short story by Dilys Rose. The story describes the racial abuse of two young Malaysians, apparently at Glasgow Central railway station, by white male racist thugs.

In setting this question the SQA appears not to have effectively grappled with the nature and dynamics of racism at personal, cultural, institutional or structural levels, or to have considered that the requirement to answer such a question might adversely affect some candidates and occasion other negative consequences.

First, at the personal level, the SQA has apparently not realised that many Scottish children have similar backgrounds to these victims, whose sensibilities might have been severely offended by being confronted with a reminder of the racism they can experience in their everyday lives. In a real sense this may amount to a personal assault on these individuals.

While there is need for an extract to be relevant and topical, does this have to be at the emotional expense of some candidates and probably their families and peers? One wonders whether a question would ever be set on graphic representations of paedophilia, sex abuse or sectarianism.

Second, at a cultural level, by singling out one group - and by association, black and ethnic minority candidates in Scottish schools - it emphasises and dramatises how some people abuse and despise the characteristics of a whole culture. "Who flung dung" (used in the text) is a part of a form of cultural racism that mimics a language in particular and a culture in general.

Third, at the institutional level, one would like to think that the SQA has an anti-racist and equal opportunities policy and that a professional committee rigorously assesses questions and their potential for offence. It should follow that such a committee would include representatives from the black and ethnic minority professional communities and those with expertise in the field of racial discrimination. But has this actually been done?

Institutional aspects of racism are on the national agenda with the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which condemned "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people."

Despite Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon's denial of the very existence of such a notion, it has been on the educational agenda since at least 1983 when the Commission for Racial Equality defined it as "a range of long established systems, practices and procedures which have the effect if not the intention, of depriving ethnic minority groups of equality of opportunity and access to society's resources. It operates through the normal workings of the system rather than the conscious intent of the prejudiced individual."

The setting of this examination question seems clearly to indicate that proper practices are not in place at the SQA and to represent precisely the sort of institutional aspects of racism identified by Macpherson and the CRE.

Finally, at the structural level, it is not impossible that a black or ethnic minority family might claim, under the Public Order Act, that statements such as "who flung dung" might count as incitement to racial hatred. There is some evidence that racial incidents in the playground followed from this question. In addition, a black or ethnic minority student might justifiably claim that their performance in the examination was affected adversely, and that they were indirectly or directly discriminated against under the Race Relations Act of 1976.

One might ask, what did the SQA moderators make of the question in pre-examination meetings? Were there any objections to it within the setting group and if so how were these treated? Were issues of the sort raised above discussed or even raised?

We need also to ask whether the markers have been asked to consider the implications. Under the terms of the Race Relations Act (Scotland) 1980, the role of local authorities in facilitating the exam might also warrant inspection.

It is not that the Rose extract cannot be used to highlight important issues. In a classroom context, where understanding, trust and confidence exist among teachers, parents and pupils, such an exercise could be valuable.

Nothing is more central to education than the national system of assessment. At the very least the SQA ought now properly to investigate how the question came to be set and to be accepted.

It should also involve local authorities and the CRE. To ensure transparency the results should be made public. This would at least start to reinstate a reputation for professionalism and fairness in the Scottish examination system.

Andrew Johnson and Stuart Ainsworth are co-directors of the Equality and Discrimination Centre, Department of Educational Studies, Strathclyde University.

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