The SATs fiasco - a classic case of Government by quango

December 17, 2008 12:05 PM

Lord Sutherland's inquiry into this summers SATs fiasco has found that "failures occurred at almost every stage of the test delivery process". Blaming a culture of complacency at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) - an attitude that "it'll be all right on the night" - the report concludes that the public body "failed to deliver its remit from government and did not manage the contract with ETS effectively".

ETS, the private American company contracted to carry out the SATs testing last summer - and which was embroiled in similar scandals in the US before QCA even awarded them the contract - are also heavily criticised in yesterday's report, accused of having insufficient capacity to deliver the tests.

But the primary focus of the inquiry was the quangos - and the parent department - responsible for hiring ETS in the first place; namely the QCA and the National Assessment Agency (NAA). In a typical government arrangement the Department for Children, Schools and Families delegates the management of testing and qualifications in England to the large non-departmental public body that is the QCA. Do not let the description confuse you though. A non-departmental body is quite definitely a departmental body; it is funded by its parent department, its senior executives and board are chosen by Ministers and it answers to the Secretary of State.

The QCA is a giant non-departmental public body (read quango), with a budget last year of over £170 million, 490 staff and critical responsibilities. The NAA is itself a quango of the QCA, in charge of school examinations.

Such an arrangement is not unusual in Government; countless bodies like the QCA exist to deliver government services, and many of these have quangos of their own to deal with one specific aspect. Indeed the myriad of public bodies and agencies makes it unlikely that anyone knows the true size and extent of today's Government. (For the TPA's effort from last year, see here).

The idea of having specialised units designed specifically to deliver a particular function  would seem to make sense. But unfortunately the current arrangement just doesn't work, and this is in part because the motivation for delegating responsibilities is political, rather than organisational.

Massive quangos such as the QCA are, in theory, the responsibility of the relevant Secretary of State. However the reality is that the "arms length" nature of these bodies excuses ministers from accountability. Scandals such as the SATs fiasco are successfully contained, the damage limited restricted to within the quangos, with the culpable politicians free to commission public inquires.

The attitude that quangos are at "arms length" meant that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) failed to properly carry out its job of monitoring the QCA. Lord Sutherland's report explicitly states that the DSCF 'failed to effectively manage' the QCA's work. This is worrying; if DCSF cannot deal with one of its biggest quangos, how does it 'effectively manage' the work of the other 21 public bodies it controls.

The conclusions of yesterday's inquiry can leave no doubt that the QCA is not fit for purpose. In response to the findings the QCA yesterday suspended Sir Ken Boston, its Chief Executive, and David Gee, the Managing Director of the NAA. The NAA is itself to go, with its functions subsumed back into the QCA. The exams regulator Ofqual (a body set up in the wake of the scandal to monitor the activities of the QCA) will be given a statutory basis and its powers increased.

Commendation must go to Sir Ken Boston for immediately offering to resign yesterday. As the man in charge he has taken responsibility, offering to give up his very lucrative position in doing so. The Board of the QCA have not yet accepted his resignation.

Either way though, Sir Ken's fate is a sideshow. The person really responsible for the SATs fiasco is Ed Balls, and even then the problem is not with him or any other individual.

The problem lies with a structural arrangement in which such fiascos are not only possible, but likely. Diasters at the Rural Payments Agency, Child Benefit Agency and HMRC all developed out of the 'government by quango' arrangement. Until politicians admit that this structure has serious faults, that government cannot - and should not - do everything, the SATs fiasco will happen again. And again. And again.   

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