How to play chess with a madman

8th December 2000 at 00:00
WAVERLEY Station on a late afternoon in November. Dark and dreich with rain invading every nook and cranny. My train to Aberdeen cancelled without explanation. A replacement bus offering no guarantee that I would catch the connecting train to Elgin.

All of that was bad but the real fiasco of the day was a Higher Still seminar.

Yes, I did once refer here to such seminars as one of the challenges facing Jack McConnell, but I did not imagine that I would be driven so swiftly to writing about them.

Where do I start? The seminar kicked off with a presentation by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. By 11.30am there had been scarcely any helpful mention of the particular subject I was there for. The audience was frustrated: many spoke out, many more felt incoherent with rage and disbelief. Why? Because the man from the SQA wasted valuable time telling us about the summer's outrage.

He told us about the number of certificates which the SQA had issued and had not issued.

He rumbled on and on about datamarkingcomputer systems etc, etc. Then he was asked why, when absolutely everything he was saying was in the public domain, he was going over these tired old facts. How insulting! Anyone who has the remotest interest in education has read all about what happened in the national press. The quality newspapers, including this one, have covered these events thoroughly. Only a Rip Van Winkle could have missed the SQA's humiliation. But it seems that, while the rest of us were assiduously reading the ongoing saga of horrific mismanagement, the SQA was asleep. Did it really imagine that teachers didn't avail themselves of every possible piece of information about the disaster?

Anyway, that's the scenario. The unfortunate speaker ended up screaming hysterically at us in the vein of: "Well, what do you want me to do? I've come with my agenda and you don't like it."

Contemplate addressing a class of kids in a similar way. Some bright spark would tell you what to do and r SQA should thank his lucky stars that teachers and lecturers, even when enraged, tend to remember their manners. I don't understand why the SQA representatives at these meetings are not properly briefed about how to prevent them from descending towards farce. Their most favoured response is: "I can't answer that."

When our man started talking about our subject, his main message was about the national standard in marking. Fine, we need to know what that standard is so that we can apply it. We were informed that most schools and colleges were not applying the national standard and hence we were getting our predictions of candidates' performance all wrong.

Why are we failing on this one? Because so far down the Higher Still track the SQA has still not communicated to us, in a clear manner, what the national standard is. I asked the unfortunate speaker if we would know what the national standard was by the time we left the seminar. He replied that we would begin the process. How acceptable is that response? In the real world, not acceptable at all.

But worst of all was the confirmation of what we have been suspecting. There was no denial of our assertion that there is already slippage in the arrangements for 2001. The SQA continues to ask establishments for data with deadlines which are almost impossible to meet. We live in total uncertainty as we never know what the next move will be. It's like playing chess with a madman or running the egg-and-spoon race without the spoon.

So you'll appreciate why my travel problems were the least of my worries. I dipped into my scalding coffee and calmed myself by reading the rubbishy novel which I had been forced to buy to take my mind off the day's odious events.

Sadly, the SQA's problems cannot be solved by such escapism.

My worries about August 2001 have increased manifold because I have now seen at first hand just what a bad loser the SQA is. Weighed and found wanting would be the biblical verdict, I think.

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