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The tragedy of errors

A flurry of resignations will not help pupils whose examination results are suspect, or anyone else, argues Ian Finlay

I RECALL as a student in London in the 1970s attending a church service at which the minister said: "Show me the person who isn't making any mistakes and I'll show you where to bury them."

I've often reflected on those words, most recently during the difficulties being experienced by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which led to the resignation of chief executive Ron Tuck and to demands for the resignation of Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister. Why are there calls for the resignation of politicians and public figures when such problems arise?

It seems there are both worthy and unworthy reasons for expecting public officials to resign when things go wrong. First, if the person concerned is clearly a barrier to resolving the issue, then it is reasonable to expect a resignation. A history of incompetence or a serious, perhaps even criminal, error would be worthy reasons for expecting resignation or for sacking the person. These conditions do not apply to either Sam Galbraith or to Ron Tuck.

A more unworthy reason for expecting resignation or dismissal is the public feeling, often whipped up by the media, that someone (the singular is used deliberately) is to blame for the problem and that person must pay. The affront suffered by the public requires a public sacrifice.

When some aspect of public policy has gone wrong, the priority ought to be to put it right. In many cases, dismissing or expecting the official or minister responsible for the policy to resign will be detrimental to solving the problem. Keeping those people in post, on the other hand, may be the best way of resolving the issue quickly.

If they are culpable, then surely they ought to be given the responsibility for clearing up the mess they created. Second, they are unlikely to make the same error twice. I imagine that had Mr Tuck remained at the SQA, we would have seen enormous improvement in 2001. Third, people in senior political and public service positions tend to be those with experience and vision - exactly the type one would wish to sort things out. After all, that's how they got their jobs in the first place.

Bringing a new peron in means a period of learning and assimilation. That is hardly the best time to have to fight fires.

It is frequently stated that the person has to go because public confidence has been lost. This may be true and again the role of the press ought not to be ignored. However, confidence can be rebuilt. I am sure I am not alone among managers in having at times lost the confidence both of members of staff and of clients but have been able to, and been supported in, building up that confidence again.

Support is critically important here. I hope that some of those baying for blood or resignation would sit back and reflect on what support they could offer when problems arise. It is rare for problems in implementing complex educational policies to arise simply as a result of the action or inaction of one individual.

Finally, there is a potential adverse consequence of laying the blame for policy failure at the door of one individual. The surest way to avoid making mistakes is to do nothing. We are unlikely to get imaginative and creative educational policies in the future if those who have the vision to generate and implement those policies are required to resign at the first sign of trouble.

Both the Parliament and the press have a role in monitoring the effectiveness of public policy in action and in scrutinising the performance of the Executive and senior public servants. No one would wish to deny them that role. It is critically important that as our own Parliament establishes its credentials, the right balance of critical analysis, sound opposition, and, when necessary, support for good policy and good people is achieved. I for one would be saddened to see the mimicking of some of the worst elements of Westminster.

Recent developments in Scottish education, even including Higher Still, have been achieved in a much more consensual manner than changes in policy south of the border. This is no excuse for complacency, as the examinations fiasco has shown. Nor is it a reason to be unforgiving of those who have put in a great deal of effort to getting us as far as we have come with Higher Still.

Ian Finlay is head of the Scottish School of Further Education at the University of Strathclyde. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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