If Scotland sees a repeat of last year's results debacle, it could destroy the country's Higher Still qualifications system, warns David Raffe.
Next Tuesday (August 14) candidates are due to receive their results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. They are hoping there will be no repeat of last year's debacle, when many results were incorrect, incomplete or late.
That event presented Scottish education with its biggest crisis of confidence; it provoked a chorus of criticisms of the then education minister Sam Galbraith and of the Schools Inspectorate; and it tainted the Higher Still reforms with an aura of failure.
Launched in 1999, Higher Still brings different post-16 qualifications - including academic Highers and vocational modules - into a single, unified system available at five levels. There is internal assessment of units and external assessment of courses. The unified system covers schools and colleges, young people and adults, and most full-time and part-time provision below higher education, except work-based Scottish vocational qualifications.
Higher Still promises "opportunity for all". In the previous system, different qualifications had unequal status and opportunities for progression were inadequate. Higher Still's solution is to provide a single framework of courses and units that allows people to enter at any level and to progress in any direction.
The SQA introduced unified arrangements for processing data on registrations and assessments, replacing separate systems for academic and vocational qualifications. It was the failure of this system that led to the debacle of August 2000. Higher Still's assessment regime imposed demanding data requirements on the system, but Scottish Parliament investigations attributed the debacle primarily to the SQA's poor management of the changeover. Nevertheless, it was frequently depicted as a failure of Higher Still.
Critics used the opportunity to attack not only the management of Higher Still, but also its aims and educational model. For a period it seemed that Higher Still's future hung in the balance.
But Higher Still was the product of consensus. The debates over the 1992 Howie report revealed wide agreement among Scottish educationists that access and progression needed to be improved, that separating pupils into academic and vocational tracks was unacceptable and that changes should be evolutionary and preserve the flexibility of existing courses. Higher Still incorporated these principles and its development involved a massive consultation exercise.
Why did this consensus seem to evaporate after the results crisis?
Part of the answer is that the crisis was hijacked not only by opponents of Higher Still's integration of academic and vocational learning, but also by those who wanted to settle old scores and to attack Galbraith and the inspectorate that had led the Higher Still development.
Another explanation is that the crisis gave vent to teachers' grievances about the volume, organisation and confused purposes of assessment in Higher Still. The government recently announced its intention to reduce assessment.
More fundamentally, introducing a unified system involved conflicts, which emerged during the development of Higher Still. Unified design rules for assessment, certification and curriculum require a compromise among different sectors and interests in the education system. The process that achieved this compromise is best described as democratic centralism, but it was perceived as top-down and it disenfranchised many participants. Resulting resentments were released after the exam crisis. The problem was exacerbated by the under-selling of Higher Still. Successive governments failed to promote its vision, partly for fear of alienating an innovation-weary profession.
In the event, the consensus has not evaporated: surveys have shown support for Higher Still's aims, if not for all its measures. But last year's crisis slowed down its implementation, made it more patchy and discouraged the political leadership that is still needed to promote the vision of the reform. Higher Still has regained much of its momentum since last August, but it might not easily survive another crisis next week.
David Raffe is professor of sociology of education at the University of Edinburgh. With Cathy Howieson and Teresa Tinklin, he is conducting a study on the Introduction of a Unified System of Post-Compulsory Education in Scotland .