SATs chaos rumbles on

The SATs exam shambles, which has left huge numbers of children either without results or with results that are clearly inaccurate, has laid bare a failing that pervades the public sector far beyond just education and schools.

The first issue it raises is that of effective and professional contract negotiation. The Government has disgracefully hung back even from criticising ETS, the company which has made such a hash of things, despite failures so great that in any other sector they would have had their contract terminated before you could say "turn over your papers and begin". There have been worrying suggestions that the reason for this could be that their contract is so incompetently drafted that ETS haven't fully breached it or, just as bad, that ETS might be in a position to sue for compensation from the taxpayer.

If that is the case it is truly extraordinary. It's hard to imagine how much worse ETS could have got things, with Barry Sheerman MP providing anecdotal evidence of teenagers being desperately drafted in to mark papers. The contract should have made perfectly clear that if they fail then the taxpayer has no responsibility to pay them another penny - anything else is a betrayal of taxpayers' interests and the children relying on the system.

The second problem is one of accountability - who was responsible for getting this wrong, who must be responsible for solving it and how can we go about bring people to book for the whole shameful show. Ed Balls, as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has responsibility for deciding educational policies, exam systems, study aims, financial provisions and a host of other things. Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was in charge of supervising the contract and delivery of the SATs. Both are presumably hoping the other will take the blame, whilst there is a very real danger that each will take a sufficiently small share of the blame that they both survive this farce without any real comeback at all. As we have so recently learned with the case of HMRC's former boss, even if Mr Boston was to resign over the affair, there's a good chance he would end up handsomely paid for doing so.

Underneath all this, past the flurry of abbreviations, quangos and contractors, is a harsh reality. This might be a question of dodging the blame or passing the buck in Whitehall but for the children involved it is a nightmare. They have worked hard for these exams, and have been left in limbo. Worse, their results are often used to decide their sets next year, on which their future education and GCSE choices are based. Furthermore, SATs are used to assess school performance, so without any reliable results parents, teachers, ministers and taxpayers are on shaky ground in making any judgements about who is doing well and who isn't.

The really worrying thing is this: even if we punish those responsible for this case, the underlying conditions that produced this failure will persist across the public sector. Too many bad contracts are signed on our behalf by people who lack the experiece to negotiate them properly, who are relatively safe in the knowledge that they are near-impossible to hold to account if it does go wrong, and if they do lose their jobs then they will get a great big golden parachute, funded by the taxpayer. Unless we make fundamental changes, this will happen again - maybe not in schools, perhaps in the army or in hospitals - but it will happen again.

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