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Dalkeith's recount

THERE will be no hanging chads but the panel of experts recruited to scrutinise exam appeals submitted by headteachers and college principals are responding to a set of circumstances as bizarre as those that faced the vote counters of Florida. However, they will have to complete their task; no court will cut them off part way.

At one time the appeals system was a jewel in the crown of Scotland's external examinations. It was thoroughgoing and keen to do its best for individual candidates. Contrast was drawn with other exam boards that either had no such system or charged sweetly for their services. Now, however, the Education Minister has had to set up a panel to review the appeals - truly a case of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

His decision is a mark of the widespread loss of confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The appeals were conducted along the usual lines but teachers and pupils refuse to accept some of the results. Since, for example, performance in fifth-year exams affects not only a sixth-year portfolio of subjects but also the prospect of a pupil's success in bidding for a university place next autumn, real decisions hang on the utcome of appeals.

The panel could unravel another tangle. Schools abound with stories of candidates whose final marks differ greatly from expectations, even after appeal. So it is possible that SQA criteria and teachers' understanding of them have got out of kilter. The introduction of Higher Still makes that more likely. When Revised Highers came in, some subject teachers took a year or two to bring pupils back up to previous levels of success. Similar teething troubles were predicted for Higher Still but these worries were lost in the August upheaval.

Teachers and examiners now face a different problem. Establishing a common set of criteria for Higher Still papers and internal assessments cannot take place until any changes to the exams are implemented. That is where two other initiatives by the minister come in. A national qualifications steering group will bring together the Higher Still implementation and liaison groups. And an "early warning" review group had its first meeting this week, including as a pupil representative Jennifer Bryce of Cumnock Academy, whose crisp analysis of the problems in The TES Scotland impressed Jack McConnell.

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