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Exam watch ministers start to chew their nails

Ministers showed the first signs of jitters this week over the running of the looming exam diet and ordered the Scottish Qualifications Authority to up its game.

Jack McConnell, Education Minister, met Bill Morton, the authority's chief executive, and John Ward, its chairman, on Tuesday to receive their monthly report.

The SQA offered reassurances on concerns repeatedly raised in recent weeks, such as registration errors and marker recruitment. The chairman and chief executive would have been left in no doubt that ministers regard the coming weeks as crunch time, with exam sittings due to begin on May 14 and run to June 12.

Mr McConnell and Henry McLeish, the First Minister, have put their own reputations on the line by insisting that all the stops will be pulled out to avoid any repetition of last year's fiasco. The Scottish Executive, according to sources, is now making t clear that the Parliament, parents, pupils and public need more reassurance than the SQA has been able to provide to date.

The first manifestation of this renewed concern is to be the setting up of an exam hotline from Saturday to allow anybody to relay their concerns to the SQA and the Executive. It will in effect be an extension of the "early warning" review group set up last year to ensure any problems are aired and quickly tackled.

The group had its monthly meeting on Wednesday and Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Education Minister who chairs it, said later that the hotline - 08452 777 111 - was another essential step in rebuilding confidence in the exams system.

Mr Stephen also highlighted continuing problems with recruiting markers. The SQA continues to say it is "on track" to recruit the 8,800 markers it needs but admits that more are required in 15 subjects.

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