Making political capital of children by John Patton

We were shown into  a closet in Victoria Quay rather than the conference room where we usually met with Scottish Education officials. A section along the back wall was piled high with Higher Still ring binder resource files. Clearly, this was wallpapering with all the subtlety of a JCB. I was part of an EIS delegation there to impress on the Minister that the reform of the  Highers  Examination was off schedule and additional time, possibly a further two years, were required for the process to be completed. The meeting was chaired by the feisty Helen Liddell, a Minister of Education in the Blair Government. Flanking her were Donald Dewar, Secretary of State, Douglas Osler, Chief Inspector HMI (Scotland) and some senior officials from the department. We presented evidence from an EIS survey of secondary school members that the proposed reform of the Higher required further development and provision of key resources. At the end of our detailed submission, Liddell glanced at Osler and the officials; a look which read , ‘that’s not what you bastards are telling me upstairs’; the scenery collapsed and we got a rare glance at the inner workings of the machine. The Chief Inspector did a bit of grandstanding on the readiness of the new courses and the imperative that there should be no delay. The Minister backed her officials and Higher Still was introduced. On the 10 August 2000 the first SQA examination results from Higher Still were revealed and their impact was catastrophic; thousands of pupils across Scotland received incomplete or erroneous results and 5% of schools did not receive any at all. Douglas Osler flew to Australia on holiday the day after the results were announced and the hapless Sam Galbraith, Children’s Minister in the new, devolved Scottish administration found himself at the centre of a storm which was not of his making. The SNP spokesperson on Education at the time was a young Nicola Sturgeon.

COVID-19 has wrought disruption through society in countless ways, not least in the forced closure of Scottish schools since mid-March.  Teachers continued working either taking classes of children whose parents were key workers or preparing and posting online lessons for pupils. I witnessed the quantity and quality of the work which my grandchildren were receiving from their teachers. The Scottish Government decided in March to cancel SQA examinations for that year and, instead,  grades would be allocated by teacher estimate, based on results from prelims and pupil work portfolios. So far so good; trust rested with the professional integrity of Scotland’s teachers. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the story. The SQA, presumably in consultation with Government, applied its usual moderation of results algorithms to the raw scores presented by schools. It seems that a key component of this formula is the inherited outcomes of schools and areas in previous years. This Bell curve procedure, as it is known, takes little cognisance of individual achievement and in many any cases  implements a crude downgrading, based on the school’s historical record. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, recognised this serious flaw and yesterday offered an apology to pupils adversely affected,  their families and the schools involved.

There is a Holyrood election next year and the usual suspects recognise the opportunity for political expediency in the current crisis. I am disappointed to see the involvement in such muck raking of Jack McConnell, a former teacher and who succeeded Sam Galbraith as Education Secretary in October 2000. It’s the kind of crude intervention that we would usually expect from the abysmally informed George Foulkes . The predictable response of an unimaginative opposition is to call for the resignation of John Swinney.  The Government has recognised that there is a problem and it is not a new one. Every year , the results are manipulated by the same process to satisfy a myriad of sociological and environmental demands; the difference this year is the absence of written  tests. John Swinney is due to make a statement in Holyrood today about the plans to rectify the problem; I expect him to assert confidence in the professionalism of teachers and the integrity of their predicted grades.

  It is imperative for the children affected and their communities that the Education Secretary is allowed to get on with his job.

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