Why the dog did not bark

1st December 2000 at 00:00
MINISTERS and their officials were not directly to blame for this summer's exams fiasco, the parliamentary enterprise and lifelong learning committee has concluded. "It was a management failure," Alex Neil, the SNP convener of the committee, said.

The report represented the unanimous view of all parties, an embarrassment for the SNP whose former education spokesperson, Nicola Sturgeon, spent the intervening months calling for the resignation of Sam Galbraith, then Education Minister.

The MSPs focused on the governance of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which meant the relationships its chief executive and board had with Scottish Executive officials and ministers. Internal events within the SQA will be the subject of next week's report from the separate parliamentary education committee inquiry.

Mr Neil said when the report was published yesterday: "The committee does not find the ministers concerned negligent when anticipating or responding to the crisis. Information was not brought to their attention, largely due to failings within the SQA. Effectively, the SQA operated in an information vacuum."

But, although this week's report exonerates ministers, Mr Neil made it clear that the governance arrangements were ineffective in that they failed to identify or prevent the crisis from happening. The report also says the Executive was unprepared for the strains facing the SQA because its departments had no proper performance management framework.

The closest the committee comes to identifying political responsibility is in saying that the burdens imposed on the SQA were too great and that ministers "can be criticised in signing off the SQA's corporate plan, which included the over-commitment of the organisation in 1999-2000".

This will be particularly uncomfortable for Henry McLeish, First Minister, whose enterprise and lifelong learning department was the sponsoring ministry at the time. This responsibility has now been assumed by Jack McConnell, the Education Minister.

Other observations and recommendations relating to the SQA board have largely been overtaken by events, since Mr McConnell sacked the SQA chairman and its board, reappointed some members and began a series of reforms after the independent inquiry by Deloitte amp; Touche.

Mr Neil said: "Throughout the system of governance, particularly at board level, there was no sysematic monitoring or assessment of performance. When things went catastrophically wrong, alarm bells did not ring and the dog did not bark."

It found that the board did ask questions about the awards processing system, the new exam data management software, but it was not thorough enough. The report said the SQA board allowed the authority to take on too much work in 1999-2000, did not do enough risk assessment before the new system was introduced, and did not pursue the management over difficulties outside bodies warned it about.

Mr Neil said: "Essentially the SQA did not know it had a problem until the last minute."

The committee's conclusions mirror those of the Education Minister in deciding to shake up what both regard as too unwieldy a board which had too many interest groups and met too infrequently to be effective. The committee also calls for the "Byzantine structure" below board level to be streamlined, on which action is already being taken by the new SQA management in line with the Deloitte amp; Touche report.

The MSPs also call for more regular, rigorous meetings of the slimmed-down board, more regular reports from the board and more "hard-core" management information, including performance against targets. They also want more thorough training for board members.

The committee supports the idea of an advisory council, independent of the SQA board, to represent the wider stakeholder interests which were formerly part of the board. But it does not endorse the idea of an independent "exams czar" first mooted publicly by Henry McLeish when he was the minister. The MSPs' report suggests this would "confuse lines of responsibility and accountability."

The report backs the continuation of an exams body at arm's length from government and does not therefore believe there is a case for converting the SQA into an executive agency. It does, however, urge the Executive to consider breaking up the current functions of the authority.

The report cautions that, whatever immediate changes are introduced at the SQA, they must not destabilise the organisation before the 2001 exam diet.

The lifelong learning committee, while inevitably concentrating on the SQA, believes its experience has lessons for quangos as a whole and it recommends that there should be a wider review of all such bodies, which Mr McLeish has already announced.

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