Mountain of fiascos grows higher still

18th August 2000 at 01:00
When I arrived in Holy Rood as headteacher, I knew only one family who attended the school. The Browns had four boys and both parents were determined to offer them the best possible education. Jackie soon became a member of the school board, while Alan was faithfully visible at extra-curricular events. All their four boys have attended Holy Rood without slipping into any role ambiguity when I meet them socially.

The imperturbable Alan was confused and troubled when he telephoned me on the morning of the publication of the examination results. Andrew's certificate included only four of the five Higher grades attempted, and all of these were A passes. There was no sign of Higher physics, in which Andrew topped the school's estimated grades. When Alan finally got through to the Scottish Qualifications Authority's helpline, he was assured that his son had failed the exam.

The school was helpless to intervene, as we had received no results whatsoever, because of ground-breaking advances in information management.

We did contact the schools' helpline, who could only confirm Andrew's uncharacteristically poor performance. Both school and parents seriously doubt this conclusion.

The results fiasco is only the coup de grace in a lengthy tussle over the introduction of Higher Still. The gestation of this revolutionary initiative easily outclassed the African elephant in duration. It is a decade since Professor John Howie slated upper secondary education in Scotland and the revered Higher examinations as being well past their sell-by dates and the curriculum as ill-suited to the diverse clientele represented in fifth and sixth years.

So unwieldy is the national juggernaut and so multifarious the vested interests that an entire generation would complete their secondary education before a replacement system could be implemented. Calls for delay, talk of phasing and claims of underfunding resounded overhead, as teachers did their best to inform and prepare themselves for the new dispensation.

The genesis of the Scottish Qualifications Authority itself has been no less tortuous. Reports of the impending union of artisan cotvec and its academic counterpart, the Scottish Examination Board, spanned the Nineties. The enforced marriage which resulted was widely perceived as uncomfortable and politically driven. The internal turmoil at the SQA has affected teachers' confidence in the institution and has undoubtedly contributed to the current crisis.

The brickbats and outrage produced by the failure of the system have been personally directed at SQA top gun Ron Tuck. Of course he had to be held to account, and did the honourable thing in resigning, but those who know Tuck will acknowledge that he is a dedicated and industrious person, who accepted a poisoned chalice and who has presided over unprecedented expansion in participation in our national examinations.

If all else fails, we can always blame the computer. Didn't those demoniacal machines foul up the sale of Scotland-England football tickets at Euro 2000 and disrupt the issue of passports last year?

There was clear evidence throughout last session that the SQA's information management systems were groaning under the expectations heaped upon them. Registering pupils last October exhausted the resourcefulness of both Holy Rood's senior management team and of Britain's brightest bursar. These staff bore the look of drained but triumphant pioneers when all of our pupils were finally enrolled.

Suspicions of gremlins were awakened as centres were required to repeat details already submitted. When it was suggested that Marney Queen, Holy Rood's meticulous principal teacher of English, had internal assessments outstanding, we knew that the computers had to be kidding. A major panic in the holidays revealed no case to answer.

The dirt hit the fan with unprecedented velocity on the day of the results. Pupils had wrong and incomplete certificates, schools had nothing, while universities had two sets of data. Politicians aimed for the jugular of their opponents and recrimination was the order of the day. As for the victims, this anxious episode will figure prominently in the memory of Andrew Brown's schooldays.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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