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Over to the task group

IT looked like the first piece of good news the Scottish Qualifications Authority has had all year. The exam results came out on time and, it seems, in good order (page five). Pupils and parents were happy (well, happier), teachers were happy, even the higher education admissions service was happy. Then it had to go and spoil it all on Tuesday - and upset a lovely day for Jack McConnell, the Education Minister - by making what appears to have been a basic statistical gaffe.

The embarrassment will not have been eased by the fact that the "exams czar", who was also having a good day, is a former chief statistician in St Andrew's House. However, it was mathematician Mr McConnell who started asking the questions, suspicious of a 7 per cent "improvement" in Higher passes. Headlines come and headlines go, but the SQA knows only too well that perceptions predominate: the impression will have been created yet again that it could not organise an examination in an exam hall.

Yet there is a success story here of a sort. The organisation has shown, at least for this year, that it is capable of processing the data thrown at it by a fiendishly complex system, generated by 4.25 million papers across 764 different exams. This year it knew what it did not know. There is none the less a lurking suspicion, and the SQA as well as the minister is only too well aware of it. Was success the result of a well-oiled machine or was it bought only by Herculean efforts on the part of all concerned, backed by an additional pound;14 million from the taxpayer and a week's delay in issuing the results?

No doubt the machine was better oiled: indeed, it could scarcely have been less creaky than last year. But this year's experience is clearly not sustainable, as the schools are telling us: an abnormal effort was required to produce what should have been a normal state of affairs. So while the SQA will have to continue refining its operations, the focus must shift to mounting a more manageable operation.

The national task group on National Qualifications assessment is now, arguably, the most important organisation in Scottish education.

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