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Alan Smithers: Heads must roll over the SATs debacle

This year's SATs fiasco was an accident waiting to happen. It's not as if we weren't warned. There was a near collapse in 2004 when the English tests for 14-year-olds were delayed. An inquiry chaired by Mike Beasley, the former managing director of Jaguar, roundly criticised all those involved, and singled out "the poor leadership and inadequate project management". David Miliband, as school standards minister, said 'it must never happen again'; Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority apologised profusely, and the little known head of its assessment arm was prevailed upon to fall on his sword. AQA, the exams body, stood down.

But here we are again. In fact, it has been touch-and-go for the past three years, with the results for 11-year-olds only ready because those for 14-year-olds were held back. This year, however, with yet another new marking agency, this time from abroad, the sky seems to have fallen in. Remarkably, as everyone concerned has been very keen to tell us, the procedures seem to have been followed perfectly. The QCA chairman, Sir Anthony Greener, declared that the process of awarding the marking contract to Education Testing Services was a model of its kind. Ken Boston assured the Commons select committee that everything had been done within the terms of the contract to have the results available to schools on time. Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the nascent test and exams scrutineer, Ofqual, was wheeled out to say the procedures for ensuring the quality of marking were the best ever.

So if everything was done by the book, what has gone wrong? It seems to have been a massive failure of judgement. Does anyone allow a decorator or plumber into their home without asking around, let alone awarding a £156m contract? It didn't take reporters long to turn up reasons for being wary. If Ken Boston was in rescue mode from 1 May, why did he wait until 26 June to be officially informed by ETS of a delay before advising the Government? And is it reasonable for Ed Balls, as Secretary of State, to be "hurt" and "disappointed", when he should have been on top of the situation? It was for him to have acted decisively, hammering out something practicable to get out the end-of-primary school results to time and quality.

As it is, we are to have another inquiry, in fact two inquiries, conducted by Lord Sutherland, a former chief inspector of schools, but these will not report till the autumn. But if the Government thinks everything will go away in the meantime, it is making a huge mistake. When there was an urgent problem with the new A-levels in 2002, Sir Mike Tomlinson, another former schools chief inspector, produced an interim report within a week, which triggered the eventual resignations of both the chief executive of QCA, Sir William Stubbs, and the secretary of state, Estelle Morris.

Should we be looking for senior resignations this time? Probably: something is fundamentally wrong. Boston has put his finger on the basic problem: there is just too much testing for the skilled markers available. But he does not seem to have been able to persuade ministers of this. Instead, he has acceded to massive increases in QCA's workload associated with diplomas and single-level primary school tests.

I have long admired the way he has handled a very difficult brief, but he has not stood up to ministers sufficiently. He has been too emollient and I fear he is to be made the scapegoat.

But the real culprit is the Government. It does not seem able to focus on getting the mundane things that really matter to people to work well. Instead, it seems intent on visions and grand designs, like personalised learning, every child matters and brighter futures, while at the same time the test results go undelivered, getting your child into secondary school is a nightmare, and teenage gangs run amok.

The Government should take a look at itself and not try to blame others for messing up its beautiful policies. Some are not the right policies, but just as important is the implementation. For the national tests, an alphabet soup of agencies is involved, each following their remit to the letter, but with a disastrous outcome. The present Secretary of State has an almost impossible task weaving together responsibilities for children and families as well as schools, and it is not surprising that he should be tempted to be "hands off".

But it is in just such matters as the tests that his leadership and judgement are required. The buck stops with him. If he is not man enough to resign, he should at least have serious words with his boss, the Prime Minister, about his job description.

The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham