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Morton vows to put SQA back on track

THE acting chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority acknowledged the scale of the task ahead when he said that this year's exam blunders were the result of "an administrative, organisational and cultural failure".

But, speaking exclusively to The TES Scotland, Bill Morton again issued the authority's apologies and pledged to put matters right "as a matter of urgency" in time for next year's exam diet.

Mr Morton said that his own internal inquiry - during which, he revealed, he will visit schools - should be completed by the end of the month. He has already focused on rectifying data transmission problems between schools and the SQA as a key task.

Mr Morton, who has had long experience of troubleshooting for failing companies, said his mission was the biggest challenge he had faced. He has already had to strengthen his senior management with two key appointments.

He reinforced the context of the difficulties, however, by pointing out that 96 per cent of Higher and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies results and 99 per cent of Standard grade marks had been in order, while adding quickly that officials were not complacent about any errors, however small.

Mr Morton said: "From the checks we have run, the computer processing system is working as it should, although it would have been better to have piloted all that rather than verifying it in real time.

"It is an information management problem - and I am happy to look you straight in the eye and say that. It's not coded language for a computer problem. It would actually have been easier to hide behind a computer problem, to say it was a technical glitch. It wasn't: it was an administrative, organisational and cultural failure."

Mr Morton, who will be 21 days in the job today (Friday), intends to make the SQA much more "customer focused", particularly in dealing with schools and colleges. "We mut have a clearer, simpler, user-friendly process in the collection of data from the schools and how we let the schools verify that the data is correct, up to date and complete."

He acknowledged the criticism from many schools that they had supplied data more than once. His visits to schools would be "a useful learning experience and a very valuable input into the sorts of changes we want to make".

Mr Morton will make any necessary changes before his inquiry is complete if the evidence warrants it. But he will not stray into broader policy areas such as the contribution Higher Still assessment may or may not have made to the SQA's difficulties. "My intention is simply to make sure that this organisation is fit for its purpose."

He has already moved to strengthen his senior management. Neil MacGowan, who was in charge of Higher Still implementation and has headed the rescue operation to clarify results, is to succeed the suspended Jack Greig as head of operations on an acting basis.

Another appointment regarded as key to turning round the organisation is that of Billy MacIntyre, formerly director of corporate services at Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley where Mr Morton is chief executive.

Mr MacIntyre's particular expertise lies in applying information technology to organisational processes (he is currently working on Scottish Enterprise's "knowledge web project" which aims to have all the agency's transactions web-based by 2003).

Much of the SQA's administration is still paper based, Mr Morton said.

He would not be drawn at this early stage into giving his first impressions of how the chaos was allowed to develop. "Part of my job is to steer a way to the facts through the urban myths," he commented. "My review is intended to establish what is broken, how it came about, what lessons can be learnt and what my priorities should be in fixing it."

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