Not A Good Look, Nicola

Since 1989 the Local Government and Housing Act has placed restrictions on the political activities of the most senior council officials.

In effect, chief executives and other officials who give advice directly to the local councils are deemed to be in 'politically restricted' posts which prevents them from holding office in a political party or being politically active.

The logic behind the legislation is sound because it is designed to stop appointed officials from becoming too cosy with their political masters, friends and allies.

Who in their right mind would think it acceptable for the chief executive of Glasgow City Council, for example, to be a committed political activist - of any political party?

Yet the legislation applies only to Scotland's local councils and not to other levels of government or public life.

So I was interested to read Nicola Sturgeon's comments about the appointment of an independent person to review the Scottish Government's handling of the exams fiasco.

According to news reports the person the Scottish Government has chosen, professor Mark Priestly, is an SNP supporter - see link below to The Times and Daily Record.   

Apparently this doesn't bother Nicola Sturgeon who says  it's not her job to interrogate people about their political views before adding: 

“Mark Priestley is a respected academic and I don’t think anybody could credibly or reasonably doubt his credentials for this job . . . But on the basis of current opinion polls, more than half of all the Scottish population intend to vote SNP so there would obviously be an issue if we started to exclude people who have qualifications to do things from doing these things because they might vote SNP. I wouldn’t exclude somebody who was qualified because they voted for another party.”

Now this is completely beside the point because senior council officials can vote for whom they please, but what they can't do is wear their political hearts on their sleeve and behave like partisan political activists - since their job is to be even-handed and professional at all times.

So if you ask me, the First Minister has got this wrong and she risks tainting the integrity and independence of an important review, in much the same way as the investigation into Alex Salmond's conduct was tainted by the investigating officer having prior contact with Salmond's accusers. 

Coronavirus in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon backs SNP supporter reviewing party’s exam fiasco

Nicola Sturgeon, who visited West Calder High School this week, said that Mark Priestley was the best man for the job. Photo - ANDY BUCHANAN/REUTERS

By Mark McLaughlin - The Times

Academics who voice support for the SNP should not be excluded from “independent reviews” into the party’s policies, the first minister has said.

Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling University, has been appointed by Holyrood to lead the review into Scotland’s exam fiasco.

John Swinney, the education secretary, survived a confidence vote on Thursday after the SNP capitulated to demands from the Greens to scrap the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s moderated grades in favour of teacher estimates.

Professor Priestley will review the transparency of the SQA and the scrutiny applied by ministers. His initial report is due in five weeks.

The Scottish Conservatives said he must not be allowed to conduct a review into SNP policy after it emerged he told his Twitter followers in December to “vote SNP or get a Tory”.

Professor Priestley also defended Scottish government policy last year when Mr Swinney was under scrutiny over the declining exam pass rate.

He co-wrote an academic paper on the eve of a parliamentary showdown in November which criticised opposition parties for using research “to support political agendas”.

Professor Priestley’s criticism was directed at Jim Scott, of Dundee University, who said fewer pupils were passing exams and more were leaving school with no qualifications since the Curriculum for Excellence came in in 2013.

Professor Priestley and Marina Shapira lamented the “rancorous debate about qualifications” and “moral panic” which “has focused on allegedly falling attainment and a narrowing of curriculum choice” and “provided fuel for attacks on government education policy by opposition politicians”.

Nicola Sturgeon said it was not her job to “interrogate” the political views of people appointed for such roles. She said: “Mark Priestley is a respected academic and I don’t think anybody could credibly or reasonably doubt his credentials for this job . . . But on the basis of current opinion polls, more than half of all the Scottish population intend to vote SNP so there would obviously be an issue if we started to exclude people who have qualifications to do things from doing these things because they might vote SNP. I wouldn’t exclude somebody who was qualified because they voted for another party.”

Ms Sturgeon previously described teacher estimates as “not credible” as they boosted the Higher pass rate to 88.8 per cent, but said she changed her mind after an outcry from pupils.

Ross Greer, the Scottish Green education spokesman, said that she only changed her mind following pressure from his party, which threatened to side with other opposition parties against Mr Swinney if she did not agree.

Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesman, said: “While Mr Priestley is a respected academic, people will rightly question the views of someone who judges that a candidate suspended by the SNP for antisemitism is ‘the lesser of two evils’.”

Swinney In Wonderland 2 (15 August 2020)

No doubt some SNP supporters will be delighted at the appointment of one of its own 'cheerleaders' to conduct a review of the Scottish Government's handling of the exam results fiasco.

Education minister John Swinney apologised for his role in the affair and went on to make the following announcement to MSPs:

“An independent review, led by Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University, will look at events following the cancellation of the examination diet and, given the urgency, I’ve asked for an initial report with recommendations on how we should go forward within five weeks.”

The media is now questioning John Swinney's choice and rightly so it seems to me, but read Paul Hutcheon's article via the link below to the Daily Record and decide for yourself.

Row as SNP cheerleader appointed to lead 'independent' probe into exam grades scandal

Professor Mark Priestley declared for Nicola Sturgeon’s party at the general election in December.

By Paul Hutcheon - Daily Record

A professor leading an “independent review” into the SQA exam grades scandal is at the centre of a row over his public support for the SNP.

Mark Priestley declared for Nicola Sturgeon’s party at the general election in December and said the “clear” message in some seats was “vote SNP or get a Tory”.

He also tweeted that supporting a candidate dumped by the SNP over anti-Semitism could “perhaps” be a “lesser of two evils”.

Carry On Teacher vs Dead Poets Society (14/08/20)

The head of Scotland's nominally independent exams watchdog, the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) stood by its decision to 'moderate' this year's exams results because lots of teachers inflated the predicted grades of their students (see link below to The Times).

While grade inflation did not apply to all teachers or their students, the SQA judged the problem to be widespread and serious enough to bring the whole system of Scottish education into disrepute.

Initially the Scottish Government agreed, but as soon as the political going got tough and with one eye firmly on next year's Holyrood elections the process of moderation was dropped like a hot potato.

No attempt was made to refine or improve the SQA system, or to explain how teacher predictions on exam performance could improve so dramatically in a single, extremely difficult year for learning.

So you could be forgiven for asking why have a system of independent checks and balances in any walk of life if, when push comes to shove the 'professionals' are allowed to mark their own homework?

Following the same logic we could save ourselves a whole lot of time and money by closing down the Care Inspectorate, Health Improvement Scotland and Education Scotland - even though their job is to act in the wider public interest and uphold nationally agreed standards.

As a teacher friend of mine said the other day:

"I'm just mad I never predicted straight 'As' for my students. I'd have got them. Teachers who played by the rules have been shafted and their pupils have lost out now. No one's speaking up for them."

Which made me think of the unscrupulous character Milo Minderbender from the novel Catch 22 who always put his personal self-interest above everything else.

When asked, "Milo, what would the world be like if everybody behaved the same way as you?" 

Milo always replied, "Well, then I'd be a fool to behave any differently, wouldn't I."

So this grubby, short-term political fix has nothing to do with educational integrity or the best interests of Scottish education - and owes a lot more to 'Carry on Teacher' than it does to 'Dead Poets Society'.


Coronavirus in Scotland: Moderation was fair for results, says exam chief

The exams body’s move to downgrade a quarter of entries was overruled this week - Photo 

By Kieran Andrews - The Times

Less than half of teacher grade estimates prove to be accurate, Scotland’s exam boss has said, as she challenged John Swinney’s rejection of her work by insisting there was a “clear and unequivocal case for moderation”.

Fiona Robertson, the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), said that she “regrets” some pupils’ feelings over downgraded results but argued that the moderation system used this year was fair.

Mr Swinney, the education secretary, faces a vote of no confidence today at Holyrood for his part in the revision of nearly 125,000 teacher estimates based on a school’s past performance, which appeared to disproportionately penalise pupils from more deprived areas. He will survive with the backing of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, who decided to keep him in post after he overruled the exams body’s move to downgrade one quarter of entries and revert to the original teacher estimates.

Ruth Davidson, who returned to the front bench for the Scottish Tories for the first time since resigning as leader a year ago, demanded Mr Swinney was sacked for presiding over the “biggest exam fiasco in the history of devolution”. At first minister’s questions, she said Mr Swinney had been the “common denominator” in several failings in Scottish education and urged Nicola Sturgeon to show “loyalty” to pupils and parents, rather than her deputy at Holyrood.

Amid claims that Ms Davidson aided a plot to oust Jackson Carlaw, the former Scottish Conservative leader, Ms Sturgeon responded that loyalty to colleagues was not “a strong suit for Ruth Davidson”.

Following the government’s U-turn on exams, Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon have apologised to pupils. Discussions are ongoing with universities to provide extra places so that students are not “crowded out”.

However, in a robust defence of exam moderation, Ms Robertson told Holyrood’s education committee that the appeals process would have dealt with any “anomalies” in the moderated results. The SQA’s equalities impact assessments showed the results were “fair”.

She said that 48 per cent of estimated National 5 grades were accurate in 2019, alongside 44 per cent of Higher estimates and 43 per cent of Advanced Higher estimates. “Research tells us that school and college estimates are not always accurate,” she said. “Estimating accuracy varies across centres, subjects and courses.”

Ms Robertson added that the SQA was “keenly aware of the concerns from young people” expressed over the past week and that “where there are lessons to be learned we will learn them”.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, calls for an overhaul of public bodies in Scottish education today. Writing for The Times, he said that “a high-handed ‘we-know-best’ approach” had been allowed to persist and the unwillingness to listen caused the controversy. “We need to open up Scottish education to proper scrutiny, give heads and parents a genuine voice, and ensure that never again are the lived realities of individual pupils put second to an algorithm in Edinburgh,” he said.

Swinney in Wonderland (13/08/20)

John Swinney is a decent chap, tribal like all politicians, but a fully paid up member of the human race in my experience.

Yet so too was Sam Galbraith, Scotland's education minster who, back in the year 2000 was in the hot seat when another fiasco befell the exams process and caused an almighty political furore.

Twenty years ago Sam Galbraith paid the price - he was forced to 'carry the can' to use Nicola Sturgeon's words - and Sam stood down from the education brief because his credibility in that particular role was in tatters.

Twenty years on the same thing has happened to John Swinney although on this occasion the Scottish Government seems intent on brazening things out instead of accepting that the education minister is ultimately responsible for the unholy mess surrounding this year's exams.

Curiously John Swinney continues to insist that the SQA's moderation process was "perfectly fair" no doubt because the education minister himself agreed that significant adjustments in exam results were required to correct the wildly inflated grades that some teachers had predicted for some of their students.

Now widespread, double digit performance increases in a single academic year are completely unbelievable and only days ago the Scottish Government was absolutely adamant that such a big jump in performance would destroy confidence in our education system and turn Scotland into a laughing stock. 

Nonetheless the Scottish Government is now asking everyone to make-believe that students in 2020 have hugely out-performed their predecessors, in a year when the Coronavirus epidemic has badly disrupted learning and teaching in schools.

Astonishingly, no one in a position of authority has bothered to explore how this strange phenomenon came about - by sheer happenstance, by osmosis or via a well organised 'under the radar' campaign? - although one BBC journalist did make me chuckle when he asked Nicola Sturgeon if she thought Scotland's school teachers were "having a laugh?" 

In any event John Swinney decided to jump through the educational looking-glass, turn reality on its head with a short-term political fix which required him to eat his own words and accept the artificially pumped-up predictions of this year's exam results.

Sadly, there is no getting round the fact that the exams fiasco undermines the integrity of Scottish education and devalues the 2020 qualifications, since the knock-on effect is to throw lots of honest teachers and hard working students under the bus - when they could have 'gamed' the system' too. 

So in terms of educational integrity Scotland's 2020 exams results are a joke which is why despite his apology John Swinney should still resign his ministerial post.


Buck Stops In Scotland (11/08/20)

20 Years ago the buck stopped in Scotland, but what will happen this time around?

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