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Counting the days

COLIN MACLEAN will offer Jack McConnell more than a comfort blanket. Ministers become used to civil service advice and may even come to trust it more than help from other sources. But the appointment of senior Executive officials like Mr Maclean to work with the Scottish Qualifications Authority is also an attempt to shorten the lines of communication, which failed last year to alert ministers to the problems mounting daily during the exams period. Since the SQA also enjoys the expertise of people trained in business and electronic technology, it has as much of a belt-and-braces administration as is possible.

Ministers think that things will not be too bad this August. The weekly reports we are publishing from schools - Kirkcudbright Academy this week (ScotlandPlus, page seven) - also suggest that while last year's disaster will not be repeated, neither will procedures be problem free. Mr McConnell will have seen or heard of the disturbing memos apparently flying around within he SQA signalling still serious malfunctions. He wants to be reassured and so he has sent in his officials and also posted representatives from the school and college sectors to pick up evidence of communication difficulties between examiners and examining centres.

The next crunch time will be when data has to be reconciled at the end of May - that is assuming that the hundreds of exam papers at different levels have not by then thrown up their own mistakes and ambiguities, which was the annual fear that used to bring the Scottish Examination Board out in a cold sweat. Candidates wrestling with exam questions will not be happy if they read that marks scored earlier in the session have been gummed up in the electronic machinery.

The media are searching for every indication of trouble. At present most insiders think that scare stories are just that. But even the First Minister and his Education Minister may endure some sleep deprivation before it proves to be so.

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