We all had our sleeves rolled up, says Elvidge

29th September 2000 at 01:00
THE HEAD of the Scottish Executive Education Department flatly denied that officials and ministers "ignored storm signals from the chalkface" before the full impact of the exams disaster was felt.

John Elvidge admitted, however, that their regard for the SQA changed after March following concerns about data exchange with schools and "went beyond the bounds of the normal relationships we would have with a non-departmental public body". This included sending in Paul Gray, the Executive's deputy director of information technology, in March and numerous meetings and e-mails which were outwith "pre-planned structured meetings".

But despite relentless probing by the SNP, anxious to portray the Executive presiding over a system it knew to be in chaos, Mr Elvidge insisted all that could be done was done. "We had our sleeves rolled up," he told MSPs.

In a commanding performance, he resisted suggestions that any point would have been served in postponing issuing exam certificates when 95 per cent were accurate, in taking over the running of the SQA or in sacking the board.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's former education spokesperson, accused the Executive of accepting vague reassurances from the SQA at face value, citing the SEED's written evidence that the authority "remains optimistic". Mr Elvidge said he had pondered the meaning of "reassurance" and concluded that unless what the Executive was being told was illogical, there was no reason to disbelieve it "short of having someone standing behind every member of staff of the SQA to ensure that everything we were being told was 100 per cent accurate".

But education committee members did not appear convinced that the concerns which the Executive had were adequately followed up. The change in tone was evident between two ltters sent to the SQA in April and July by senior Executive officials, which Michael Russell, the SNP's new education spokesman, cited as evidence of mounting chaos.

The April letter said ministers had been given reassurances about "the true position, including that we had no reason to doubt the thoroughness of the SQA's analysis or the robustness of its planning".

By July, however, Eleanor Emberson, head of the SEED unit which deals with the curriculum and IT, shows an Executive in apparently full hands-on mode, including instructions on how to carry out checks and what to check. It shows at least one official very keenly aware of looming problems such as whether the computer system was coping, the feasibility of getting results out in time, how pupils' anxiety about missing results might be handled, and a possible appeals backlog.

Mr Russell said this level of detailed intervention showed the Executive "was effectively running the SQA in all but name", yet it did nothing to prevent the disaster.

Mr Elvidge repeated that "we were leaning very heavily on the SQA." Ms Emberson nodded when he described her "instructions" to the SQA as simply a list of what had already been agreed with the authority. He also pointed out, in reply to suggestions that it could have taken over the SQA's operations or sacked the board, that "the SQA is not like a football player who can be substituted at the last minute: there wasn't another SQA waiting to come on to the pitch". It had the operational knowledge.

Mr Elvidge twice resisted invitations to indicate what advice he gave ministers. But he said that, since he could not think of any other alternative actions which would have made any effective difference, the committee could infer what advice he might have given.

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