Results mix-up not the SQA's fault this time

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was involved in an exam results scare after apparently misinterpreting Scottish data a full week before Tuesday's embarrassing glitch that led to around 1,000 students being given better passes than they deserved.

On first reading of the 27,000 results sent by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Cheltenham-based service believed the authority may have messed up again after several thousand candidates aspiring to a university place this autumn had incomplete information against their names.

It was suggested as many as 10 per cent of results were affected. The matter was quickly resolved after hurried talks with the SQA.

The confusion centred on a misreading of the Scottish system, which does not grant a grade until all three course units are complete.

The SQA pointed out that it knew of the 2,600 exam entries, or 1.5 per cent of the total 167,000 entries, that were left "open" and could account for them all. Many candidates were in FE colleges and had yet to complete their units before gaining an award. Candidates could also have withdrawn from the course and exam.

A spokeswoman for UCAS admitted there were "queries" against some results and the organisation had informed universities that pieces of coursework had still to be completed.

An investigation is under way into how UCAS botched the award of compensatory passes for candidates who narrowly failed exams. It led once again to screaming headlines about an exam system "in chaos".

The clearing-house coped with the system last year but this week mysteriously awarded C passes at the grade candidates sat, rather than compensatory passes at the grade below. This boosted students' chances of a place on their chosen university course.

The "fiasco", as media and political pundits enthusiastically labelled it, has turned the focus on to the complexities of the post-16 exam system. More than a year ago, Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, and now an SQA board member, warned that universities and colleges would be confused by the award of compensatory A passes at the level below, particularly from Advanced Higher to Higher.

Mike Russell, the SNP's shadow education minister, likewise emphasised that higher education institutions could be seriously misled and this week repeated his assertion that ministers had failed to simplify the post-16 system.

Meanwhile, headteachers and local authorities have congratulated the SQA for its handling of the results but, like others, are keenly awaiting its probe into the 2.2 per cent fall in pass rates at Higher. A report is likely to be in the hands of Cathy Jamieson, the Education Minister, by next week.

The Educational Institute of Scotland noted the pass rate fall is in line with previous rates before the Higher Still shake-up, but again called on ministers to review workload on students and teachers.

Ian McKay, EIS assistant secretary, said: "We would hope the minister will look at the effect which too high a level of continuing internal assessment in these courses is having on the ability of teachers and students to prepare for the end of course examinations."

Union campaigners for a boycott of compulsory internal unit assessment believe students spend too much time trying to finish units and not enough on exam preparation. In mass subjects such as English, which has undergone significant course reform, lack of staff development may have contributed to teacher misunderstanding of the required standard, it is suggested.

As the system settled down in its third year, more teachers may have entered candidates for a higher grade than some could handle, knowing that compensatory A passes were available at the level below.

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