Ministers in a spin over end to exam tables

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive got itself into a classic confusion last week with a half-hearted unveiling of plans to scrap "league tables", in an interview with the Herald newspaper by Peter Peacock, Education Minister.

There were no details of alternative arrangements or time-scales and the media excitement which followed obscured the significant announcements Mr Peacock made on the same day, signalling "regime change" to 3-14 assessment and the 3-18 curriculum.

The revelation that tables of post-16 exam results are to be abolished was entirely expected. It had already been flagged strongly in Partnership for a Better Scotland, the document which formed the basis of the coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The commitment was: "We will promote improved assessment of individual schools' progress as a better measure than league tables."

This was a step beyond the previous ministerial mantra. Nicol Stephen, former deputy education minister, had said in a speech during the last parliament that, since the Executive did not issue exam results in league table form, it could not have any proposals to scrap them.

Ministers' preoccupation now is how to present a raft of information on school performance in line with the five national education priorities.

This will include attainment data but will also involve school discipline, the inclusion of special needs pupils, the promotion of values and citizenship, and the promotion of skills for lifelong learning such as creativity and ambition.

In his interview, Mr Peacock made clear his antipathy to tables. A subsequent statement from the Executive declared: "Parents, pupils and teachers who responded to the national debate on education highlighted the negative effect of league tables.

"We are working on proposals to bring our Partnership for a Better Scotland commitments to fruition. Full details will be announced in due course."

The main headache, which ministers privately acknowledge, is the Freedom of Information Act. This does not come into operation until January 1, 2005, but Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner, said the Executive had a "relatively pressing" task to decide how it intended to proceed. Public authorities, including the Executive and local councils, have until February 28 to submit details of "publication schemes".

Mr Dunion told The TES Scotland: "The only questions for me are: does the public authority hold the information in any form, are there any exemptions to prevent the information being made public and should such information be proactively published?"

He said the legislation does not allow public bodies to withhold information on the basis of what it is to be used for or for fear that it might cause political embarrassment. It will therefore not be acceptable to argue that publishing exam results will be unfair to schools.

Ministers may decide to publish results but only in school prospectuses and in each authority, without issuing them nationally. But Mr Dunion warned that if data was collated anyone could demand its release. Unless there was an exemption, "the presumption is in favour of disclosure".

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