Holyrood has its say

29th December 2000 at 00:00
IT was a good year for the Parliament and a bad year for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Inspectorate. Since the first of these is elected and the others are staffed by appointees, it was also a good year for democracy. One cannot say that often nowadays. The Parliament shook off accusations of wastefulness and lack of direction. It thrashed about at first in the Section 2A controversy but then came up with a form of words which quietened passions and changed nothing. Schools said the arguments were irrelevant to classroom teaching, and so it has proved.

In the second half of the year MSPs came into their own, and interestingly their contribution to investigating the exams fiasco was largely through two specialist committees. The powers given to the committees always looked among the most promising of the constitutional innovations in the devolution process. Pre-legislative examination of Executive proposals has already been productive, but it was the careful, non-partisan investigation of the SQA which has made the Parliament's reputation.

Think of what would have happened had the aena been Westminster. There would have been a few parliamentary questions at six-weekly intervals, probably an ill attended late-night adjournment debate and an inquiry by either the grand committee or a select committee on Scottish affairs. Interested parties would have been ferried up and down to London. The pupils who gave some of the most telling evidence to MSPs would have been allowed no say.

MSPs' refusal to be lured into easy scapegoating meant that at least some of the underlying unease about policy and practice was exposed. The new minister, Jack McConnell, acted to reduce the Inspectorate's autonomy on the basis of evidence already on the table and before the committee reported. If MSPs felt their fire had been drawn they could console themselves with the thought that the legislature had precipitated Executive action.

The story will give little satisfaction to pupils and teachers let down by the exam system. But if it signifies that the balance of power in Scotland need not be the same as between Westminster and Whitehall, it should win a place in the modern studies syllabus.

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