How the champion of testing outfought the 'bedwetters'

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Michael Forsyth once rated the 5-14 programme his proudest achievement as education minister. Starting life in November 1987 as Curriculum and Assessment in Scotland: A Policy for the 90s, it showed the Secretary of State's capacity to give ideological leadership to an educational problem.

Officials had an early insight into his approach when he had a bruising battle behind the scenes with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. It drafted the first 5-14 paper which, one of his aides recalled, "contained exactly the language Mr Forsyth did not like - too cosy, too many reservations, too imprecise". It was rewritten and emerged in March 1989 as The Balance of the Primary Curriculum.

HMIs had long been expressing concern about the uneven quality of primary education. Mr Forsyth simply took this happy coincidence and literally tested it to its limits. The parents' revolt against the subsequent plan to compulsorily test primary 4 and primary 7 children - the "bedwetting" saga, as the campaign warning of the dire consequences was dubbed in Scottish Office circles - then became a cause celbre.

Mr Forsyth's response revealed an early example of his calibre. As a political street fighter, he was more than willing to concede that an alliance of parents and councils in opposition to the tests (with the Educational Institute of Scotland sensibly allowing them to take the public lead) was unbeatable. "Don't spend any more time on this," he is said to have told his officials.

Fortunately for him Frank Pignatelli, the former Strathclyde Region's education director, had provided a way out by suggesting testing at each of the five stages of 5-14. "More testing?" Mr Forsyth replied. "If that is a compromise, I think I can live with it."

The settlement over testing was credited to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Mr Forsyth's emollient successor. But, Scottish Office sources say, it was actually Mr Forsyth's achievement. Such was the hostility he inspired, however, the deal probably stood a better chance because it was proposed by the new minister.

That was the downside of Arbroath man, something of which he was perhaps aware himself. During the early stages of the primary testing arguments, he summoned Nisbet Gallacher, then head of the Inspectorate, and Douglas Osler, the 5-14 chief inspector, to explain the professional justification for the changes to the Scottish leaders of the opposition parties. "If they won't take it from me, perhaps they'll listen to them," he reasoned. It was an example of the commitment he was prepared to put into what he saw as a centre-piece of Government policy.

On other occasions, his advisers had to rein in some of his rawer Thatcherite tendencies, such as his instinctive preference for externally marked "pencil-and-paper" tests and his hostility to the broad-based environmental studies programme in the upper primary. He raised this latter spectre, which would have taken older primary pupils back to the basics of history, geography and science, in a controversial foreword to the draft 5-14 environmental studies report. This also called for subject setting by ability in the first two years of secondary school, an issue not revisited until after Mr Forsyth's return as master at the Scottish Office.

The episode showed his talent for putting an ideological gloss on an educational issue. But the reception that greeted the HMI report on Achievement for All, which advocated setting, also showed an endless capacity for generating controversy by his mere proximity to an issue.

Mr Forsyth's presence was not always a source of ideological strain. The backing of such a renowned right-winger was crucial in the fight to retain the Inspectorate against pressure from Downing Street to adopt the English model of an Office for Standards in Education. The public relations man in him might have anticipated the ridicule that would have attached to SCOFSTED or SOFSTED.

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