First published on Sept 17, 2016 by the Daily Record: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/year-long-fight-truth-government-8854300
IT’S finally over.
After a scarcely believable and unnecessary year-long battle the Scottish Government have finally been forced to release the written advice they received regarding standardised testing.
The public now has access to the unvarnished and mostly unredacted truth, as should always have been the case.
We now know this material, which informed a controversial shift in education policy, consisted of four emails from two individuals and that a number of the written recommendations were rejected.
What’s more, these submissions were, according to the Scottish Information Commissioner, “unsolicited”, suggesting that the Government did not even bother to seek written advice before announcing their plans last September.
The Government have tried to defend themselves by pointing to “many in-depth discussions with parents, teaching unions,academics and education professionals and those views were used to shape the draft National Improvement Framework, including the approach to standardised assessments”.
This seems perfectly reasonable. After all, the Government did hold 11 meetings in the four months before the announcement of their standardised testing plans.
There’s just one problem – from all these hours of talks, over many weeks and months, not one single set of minutes was taken. Not one.
In fact the Government’s record-keeping is apparently so poor that even agendas for nine of the meetings cannot be provided.
So we, the Scottish public, have no way of knowing what was said during these discussions.
It may well be that, recognising how controversial plans for standardised testing were always going to be, the Government made a point of raising the issue at every opportunity.
Then again, it’s also perfectly possible that conversations specifically focused on standardised testing were largely avoided by politicians and Government officials fearful of an overwhelmingly negative reaction.
It may well be that the vast majority of those present whenever standardised testing was raised offered enthusiastic backing for the Government’s proposals.
Or perhaps it’s the case that at meeting after meeting the Government were repeatedly warned that their plans would lead inexorably to serious consequences such as a narrowed educational experience for young people, the publication of damaging school league tables and the entrenchment, rather than reduction, of the so-called attainment gap.
We just don’t know.
In the interests of transparency and democratic accountability several questions must now be answered.
Why did the Government choose not to seek written advice from experts on the matter of standardised testing?
Why have the Government spent a year fighting, in vain, to keep the limited advice they received on the issue a secret from the public?
Why did the Government decide not to take minutes at meetings which former education secretary Angela Constance has admitted directly informed her thinking on the development of the standardised testing policy?
And, most of all, why did the Scottish Government have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards an honest, open and transparent position?
At this point it’s worth thinking back to November 15, 2012, when Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, led a debate about possible amendments to Scottish freedom of information laws.
She told MSPs: “I believe that transparency is not an optional add-on but an integral part of policy-making.”
This noble sentiment was repeated in November 2014 when Sturgeon laid out her first programme for government, with Holyrood assured of her intention to lead an “open and accessible government”.
She certainly talks a good game, but it’s impossible to square the First Minister’s asserted support for openness and transparency with the barriers faced by many of those trying to hold her government and other public bodies to account.
Earlier this month, for example, it emerged the Government had “breached freedom of information law by delaying the release of information” to journalist Rob Edwards.
The report included a damning extract from the Scottish Information Commissioner’s judgment on the case which described ministers as “unreasonable”.
Concerns have also been raised about attempts to conceal the nature and contents of a conversation between the First Minister and Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP who has been appointed as chairman of the new Growth Commission.
Given what we now know, it’s hard to see how the Government can pursue standardised testing with any credibility – but it’s clear a bigger issue needs addressed.
If Sturgeon is genuinely committed to open, transparent and accountable policy-making, then a fundamental shift in the official attitude towards the recording and release of information is needed.
The SNP promised us openness and transparency, and the people of Scotland deserve nothing less.