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What next for the SQA reformers?

The political drive that emerged after the Highers fiasco has lost its impetus, says Michael Russell

Driving back through the Irish border country last week, I remembered that it was here that I first heard of the meltdown of the Scottish exams system, almost exactly five years ago. Then and now, I had been on holiday on the west coast of Ireland where access to the Scottish media was non-existent. But, tuning into an increasingly strong Radio Scotland signal as I headed towards Larne, the first reports of missing results - and perhaps even wrong results - were beginning to come through. By the time I reached home, what was speculation was fast becoming disturbing fact.

It finally turned out that some 18,000 young people were affected by both errors in the certificates and missing data. Applications to universities and colleges were disrupted (at one stage a defectively coded computer tape was given to UCAS, which derailed the whole process for a day or two). To add insult to injury, schools were given little or no information while the "hotline" for enquiries was staffed by individuals who were being provided with contradictory messages from within the Scottish Qualifications Authority itself.

For years, the Scottish examination system had been a byword for accuracy and quiet efficiency. Suddenly, it became synonymous with incompetence and confusion, much to the distress of many pupils, parents and teachers. Heads quickly began to roll - the chief executive of the SQA left within days - but obviously much more needed to happen in order to restore normal service, and it needed to happen fast.

At that time, I was not my party's lead spokesman on the issue, although all MSPs were soon involved as individual complaints flooded into our offices. Then within weeks, I took on the job of shadow minister for education and, with it, membership of the parliamentary inquiry into what went wrong.

Five years on, it is interesting to dust down that report on the SQA. At the time, it was regarded as the most comprehensive of the various attempts by the Scottish Executive and MSPs to get to the bottom of what happened and to make positive recommendations for the future. It was certainly the most thorough examination of the issue, for the committee took evidence or discussed the matter on nine occasions from the end of September to the end of November. In December, it published not just a 91-page analysis which contained 56 detailed recommendations but an accompanying volume of evidence that ran to more than 500 pages. Yet, did it make any difference?

Perhaps the most significant point to make is the obvious one: the failure did not take place again. Within a few months - and with a great deal of work having been done by a new management team in the SQA - procedures were repaired or replaced. The 2001 diet was a success, as was each diet thereafter.

When the results finally come out next week - and they are eagerly awaited in my household, given that my son is on the cusp of going to university - there is no reason to assume that things will be any different.

The SQA senior staff at the time were quite clear that the education committee report did help them in their task. It identified weaknesses, suggested remedies and gave an impetus to further essential reform, such as the separation of the inspectorate from the Scottish Executive Education Department. That was particularly important, because one of the roots of the disaster lay in an over-closeness between the inspectorate, the setting of policy and the delivery of services.

Yet, probably many of the changes would have happened anyway. Politically, it was unthinkable that it should be allowed to recur, so ministers and senior civil servants threw very substantial resources at the problem - some pound;11 million in the first year.

None the less the involvement of members of the Scottish Parliament in asking questions, demanding answers and talking to all those affected - the list of those who gave evidence was legion and included pupils and parents - was important. In those early days of devolution, the sight of our parliament doing its work thoroughly and in the full view of the public was a novelty, and for politicians of all parties to be able to come together and reach a virtually unanimous conclusion was encouraging.

So was the ability of the committee to gain the best possible professional and technical advice and use that to produce an informed set of suggestions for the future. Perhaps the weakness was in following through. While the senior officers of the SQA did appear before the committee in subsequent years, the Executive was already showing signs of paranoia. It would be highly unlikely, in today's very partisan political climate at Holyrood, that a recurrence of such a disaster would lead to a similar large-scale and co-operative exercise in democratic scrutiny: petty politics and the desire of ministers to control everything would interfere from the beginning to stop it.

That is a pity, for there is unfinished business from the SQA enquiry.

Taking the Scottish exam system back to full and efficient operation was the first priority; the second was to take it further and to make it once again a world leader in innovation and excellence. To complete that job, there needs to be much more investment in new technology and in new ways of doing things. Exams do not have to be run so strongly from the centre, nor do they have to be moderated in such a rigid fashion.

If the parliament had lived up to the promise shown in that first inquiry, the education committee would still be making those points, and pressurising ministers to listen and invest. Alas, it shows no sign of doing so. Today it looks more and more like a creature of the Government, rather than its constructive critic, a fact that makes Scottish education all the poorer.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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