Two cheers for the new democracy

14th September 2001 at 01:00
I WAS recently asked in a radio interview whether I thought the general success of this year's examination diet was a tribute to the workings of the Scottish Parliament. The implication of the question was that the old Scottish Office might have handled the situation less effectively.

There are some grounds for agreeing with this proposition. The Scottish Qualifications Authority crisis was a major test of the Parliament which, up to that point, had not received a good press. MSPs of all parties saw an opportunity to assert themselves and put pressure on the Executive to take action. A report by external consultants was commissioned and produced a damning report on the management of SQA.

The education committees of the Parliament conducted their own inquiries which involved the pleasing spectacle of John Elvidge, head of the Scottish Executive Education Department, and Douglas Osler, HM senior chief inspector, being subject to close questioning. When Jack McConnell took over from Sam Galbraith as Education Minister, he soon established his authority and additional staff with the necessary expertise were drafted in to support the acting chief executive, Bill Morton, who had made an uncertain start. Subsequently the role of the inspectorate was redefined and its status reduced.

Underlying all of this were serious issues of credibility. The reputation of Scottish education was at stake. This was not just about how education professionals were perceived or how managerial competence was assessed. It was about political credibility at the highest level. If there had been a repeat of the events of last year, it might not only have been Jack McConnell's job that would have been at risk.

One can only speculate about how the old Scottish Office would have handled the crisis, but I think it is likely that less information about the failings of the SQA would have reached the public domain. There would have been a familiar closing of ranks to protect the "integrity" of the policy community and the inspectorate may well have survived unscathed. It is important, however, not to allow the Parliament to claim too much credit. Many individuals and groups helped bring about a successful outcome this year. Heads and teachers showed courage in going public about their concerns. The media by their detailed reports on developments ensured that education remained high on the public agenda.

Individuals such as Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University and Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council asked penetrating questions about the way SQA officials were responding to the crisis. Organisations such as the Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature ensured that the Higher Still dimension was kept to the forefront of the debate.

It would be extravagant to claim that all this amounts to a victory for democracy in the new Scotland. But it is an illustration of what might be achieved through greater civic activism. There are lessons for all of us in this episode. The Minister needs to be careful about replacing one set of self-interested advisers (HMIs) with another (senior administrators). He must continue to live up to his promise to listen to parents, pupils and teachers and ensure that he has access to a wide range of professional advice. And whatever emerges from the current review of SQA, it must be reconstituted in a way that avoids charges of political interference.

There are other stirrings in Scottish society - witness the campaigns on the south side of Glasgow over health service provision and the battle against closing Govanhill swimming pool - which suggest that the old compliance and passivity, on which the political establishment has depended, may be disappearing. In retrospect, we may come to view the SQA episode as a significant turning point.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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