Exams head: Balls 'sexed up' evidence against me

Accusations fly over chaos that beset national curriculum tests last year
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The Independent Online

Ministers "sexed up evidence" to an inquiry into last summer's national curriculum tests fiasco to discredit the head of the Government's exams watchdog, MPs heard yesterday.

Both the Children's Secretary Ed Balls and Schools minister Jim Knight misled Parliament and the inquiry about the role of Ken Boston, the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, in the affair, they were told.

Dr Boston said he was treated as if he was "a troublesome priest" that they wanted to rid themselves of. "A plot was devised well before the failure of the national curriculum tests," he told MPs on the Commons committee monitoring education.

His main allegation centred on an account of a meeting on 17 June between himself, Mr Knight and the National Assessment Agency – the wing of the QCA responsible for delivering the test results – in which Mr Knight implied that Dr Boston was "disengaged" and "complacent" in deflecting all questions.

In a letter to the Select Committee, Dr Boston said: "This is fiction. I was not at the meeting." However, Mr Knight's account formed the basis of evidence to the inquiry held by Lord Sutherland, the former chief schools inspector, and was later repeated by Mr Balls to MPs.

"At the end of a 45-year career in education, I don't wish to be portrayed by a minister as complacent and disengaged when it is untrue and based on false evidence," Dr Boston said.

"I resent evidence against me being presented by ministers being sexed up in a report for Lord Sutherland."

Mr Knight later wrote to the inquiry – after publication – to admit his information had been incorrect.

Dr Boston also revealed that, six days after giving evidence to the Sutherland inquiry, he received an approach from Sir David Bell, the Permanent Under-Secretary at Mr Balls' department, asking if they could negotiate an early resignation. "It was on the grounds that the report would be bad for me," he said. "By the time the two ministers gave their evidence to the inquiry the skids were under me."

Last night Sir David said that ministers did not know of his approach.

Dr Boston said relations had soured earlier over disagreements in the formation of Ofqual, the new exams regulator. Dr Boston said that he wanted it to be given more independence.

He said he should have resigned two years earlier in 2006 when ministers rejected his plans for reforming the way national curriculum tests were marked by moving towards a system of online marking successfully trialled for GCSEs and A-levels.

"I was left running an organisation that was faced with an impossible task," Dr Boston said.

Ministers turned down the idea because he could not guarantee the test results would be the same, he said.

"They would be better but they would be different," he said. "They may be better, they may be worse but they would not be the same. That was too big a gamble."

Dr Boston also criticised the way the inquiry framework was drafted to ensure it only investigated the actions of the QCA and ETS Europe, the firm given the contract to deliver the results, and the use of government observers at QCA meetings. He said that the remit set out by Mr Balls had thrown a "protective cloak" around ministers. On the observers, he said it had the effect of making supposedly independent quangos only put forward advice ministers wanted to hear.

Graham Stuart, a Conservative member of the select committee, said: "I would like to hear evidence from the ministers and certainly ministers might well consider their positions on the basis of what we have heard today."

A spokesman for Mr Balls' department said Mr Knight had acknowledged the information about the meeting was incorrect but Lord Sutherland had indicated that it made no difference to the outcome of his inquiry.

Testing times: Boston's claims

The claim Ministers "sexed up" evidence to the inquiry to discredit him, and the Schools minister Jim Knight accused him of deflecting questions about the crisis at a crucial meeting.

What happened Dr Boston was not present at that meeting.

The claim The "skids" were under him before the inquiry reported.

What happened He was approached by Sir David Bell, the Permanent Under Secretary at Ed Balls' department, before the inquiry reported, asking to negotiate an early resignation.

The claim The remit of the inquiry ignored any part that Mr Balls' department had played in the crisis.

What happened It was just asked to investigate the role of the QCA and ETS Europe, the firm handling the contract, in the run-up to the test result delays.