HMI 'midwives of Higher Still'
He left no one in any doubt his party blames the inspectorate for building a Higher Still programme "so complex that most non-professionals do not understand it and so Byzantine that the final certificates are difficult to comprehend even to the students who get them".
Mr Russell joined the popular chorus calling for change, winning warm backing from the heads in his first major educational speech since taking over from Nicola Sturgeon. The parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish Qualifications Authority had shed light on the "unsustainable paradoxes in the role of the inspectorate, where policy advice, policy implementation, policy assessment and policy review all rest in the same hands", the MSP said.
Foreshadowing the likely approach of the forthcoming inquiry report, Mr Russell also blamed the Scottish Executive approach of "pressure and support" for failing to consider teachers' concerns about Higher Still.
The programme was meant to be simpler and more efficient and easily understood but had been snared by its complexity. "It was a system so unwieldy that its administration could literally not be coped with by what had been one of the best examination systems in the world," Mr Russell said.
He continued: "Working within a dangerously closed circle the inspectorate were able to build Higher Still through development to implementation without having to confront or account for the considerable dissatisfaction of a whole range of stakeholders."
Mr Russell did not oject to the principles of Higher Still but to "a whole range of difficult to understand and difficult to administer adjuncts which may not be necessary and in the original concept were not meant to be there".
He lambasted the weight of continuous assessment. It was possible to support it, yet still question the way Higher Still perverted a virtue and made it an intolerable burden.
The programme was a top-down concept in which tasks were set, directions given and results demanded. But Mr Russell promised a more consensual approach if the SNP were handed power, primarily through an education convention that would bring together major stakeholders to ensure policies commanded support and agreement. This would be the "centrepiece" of party strategy.
He added: "It is time to end the chilly atmosphere of justifiable discontent in some of Scottish education and see whether we can move towards a warmer summer of consensus and co-operation."
If that sounded like capitulation to the unions, Mr Russell pledged that plans would "not be the prisoner of any interest group, nor dictated by any sector or special interest group".
He won solid backing for an attack on government spending in which increases one week were balanced by cuts the next. Schools had to have money restored to their budgets and freedom to operate according to locally-set priorities, free from ringfencing and national diktat.
Every class will have around two pupils who show signs of dyslexia and 95 per cent of them will have problems with short-term memory. Most are stronger visually, Jan McGregor, field officer for the Scottish Dyslexia Association, told the conference.