Complaint submitted to Ofcom on Dec 12th 2018.
On September 19th a vote took place in the Scottish parliament. The vote was on a motion lodged by Conservative MSP Liz Smith. The motion wording is shown below:
That the Parliament believes that good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland’s schools, but notes the level of concern that has been raised by teachers and other education professionals regarding the introduction and delivery of new testing arrangements for Primary 1 (P1) pupils; considers that this concern questions whether the new P1 tests are in line with the play-based learning philosophy of early years provision in the curriculum for excellence, and, in light of this concern, calls on the Scottish Government to halt the tests in P1 and to reconsider the evidence and the whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils.
A majority of MSPs backed the motion. Whilst it is often necessary for media outlets to summarise lengthy wording of motions in order to more easily inform the public, BBC Scotland reported that the MSPs had voted to “scrap” P1 assessments.
I contend that the public has been misled and that MSPs did not vote to scrap P1 assessments but in fact voted to halt P1 assessments and reconsider the policy.
BBC Scotland’s justification for their claim was that some MSPs, when speaking during the parliamentary debate, had voiced a desire to have the policy scrapped and that the news reports were reflecting “a nuanced reflection of the mood of the Chamber during the debate”.
I countered that the BBC Scotland broadcasts weren’t describing a “a nuanced reflection of the mood of the Chamber during the debate” but that they were very clearly reporting on the outcome of the vote on the parliamentary motion. I pointed out that there was no point in asking for evidence to be reviewed if the policy is already scrapped.
The complaint then passed to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit. The ECU agreed that ‘halt’ and ‘scrap’ did not have the same meaning. Had it upheld my complaint? No. The ECU sought to justify the use of the word ‘scrap’ by applying a rather bizarre interpretation onto the wording of the motion.
The ECU official stated:
“I accept that the meaning of the word halt is not the same as scrap. But taking into consideration the full wording of the motion I note that the Government was enjoined not only to halt the tests but also to reconsider “the whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils”.
I think if the motion had only required a halting of the tests and a reconsideration of evidence it could be argued that it stopped short of recommending scrapping the test, but in fact it went further, requiring the government to reconsider its whole approach.
To summarise the effect of these separate requirements, taken together, as a vote to scrap the testing seems to me to be an accurate reflection of the will of those putting the motion before the house and those who voted in its favour, without altering the meaning of the motion as a whole. Accordingly I am not upholding your complaint on this point.”
In subsequent broadcasts, BBC Scotland continued to insist the motion was asking for P1 assessments to be ended. On October 25th several newscasters on BBC Scotland claimed MSPs had voted to “abandon the system”, “scrap” and “drop” P1 assessments. BBC Scotland’s political editor Brian Taylor described the vote to “abandon” P1 assessments as “the will of parliament”. The will of parliament can only be determined by a vote
A further separate complaint listing these broadcasts resulted in me being referred to the previous responses from the BBC and its ECU to the original complaint.
My complaint thus hinges on whether Ofcom believes that to reconsider “the whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils” can only mean scrapping P1 assessments.
Does Ofcom believe this? Does asking for a policy to be reconsidered equate exclusively to demanding it be scrapped? Can you not reconsider a decision or policy and ultimately leave it in place [even modified]?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘reconsider’ as … Consider (something) again, especially for a possible change of decision regarding it.
The Scottish government has confirmed it will, as requested by the motion, review the evidence and reconsider the whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils. It has set up an independent group to review the evidence. Education Secretary John Swinney has confirmed he will implement whatever recommendation comes from the review. Change is thus possible … but not inevitable.
There can be three possible outcomes to the motion if it is honoured in full.
- P1 assessments are scrapped
- P1 assessments endure in a modified fashion
- P1 assessments endure unaltered
In short, the motion is very clearly not demanding the policy be scrapped. It is, quite literally, asking for it to be halted, the evidence reviewed and the approach reconsidered.
BBC Scotland would have you believe that there is only one possible outcome if Liz Smith’s motion is adhered to. P1 assessments have to be scrapped. But that is to confuse the desired outcome of the motion as stated by some opposition MSPs with the motion itself.
Remember that we are talking about the motion that was put before MSPs in the Scottish parliament, and not what some MSPs may wish for. It is not in dispute that many MSPs want P1 assessments scrapped. But the vote, the will of parliament, allows for other outcomes.
If Ofcom rules in favour of the ECU and BBC Scotland, it must explain why a reconsideration of a policy rules out a continuation of that policy, either as it stands or modified.
Finally … Ofcom may be interested to learn that there was a motion asking for P1 assessments to be scrapped. But it wasn’t Liz Smith’s motion. It was lodged by Labour MSP Iain Gray nine days earlier on Sept 10th. According to newspaper reports, opposition MSPs were poised to vote on this motion.
The complete wording stated: “That the Parliament believes that standardised assessments for P1 pupils should be scrapped.”
But it was never voted on. Iain Gray’s motion eventually fell on November 28th.