THE Scottish Qualifications Authority is working with the Scottish Executive to avert a potential shortage of markers for next year's exams.
The Executive is not yet joining the unions in anticipating a crisis but it wants the SQA to plan ahead so it is not in the position - as it was this year - of sending out an urgent appeal for "significantly more markers" at the end of May.
This year's experience has put the system of appointing and funding markers under the microscope and all sides agree it has been found wanting. Union leaders say many of their members, exasperated by marking problems this year, are vowing not to do the job again, although 88 per cent of this year's group had previously done so.
The SQA required 7,000 markers, up by more than 700 on last year, to cope with 4 million question papers for the summer diet. There are few doubts that the pressures on the system, already considerably increased because of the Higher Still assessment load, will intensify next year as more pupils sit the new Highers as well as exams at Intermediate I and II and Advanced Higher.
Markers are currently paid on the number of scripts they handle in an hour. The rate, which was increased by 10 per cent this year, averages pound;1.50 per script but the Educational Institute of Scotland is calling for "a substantial increase". This would land local authorities with a significant bill, however, since it is their fees to the SQA that underwrite the costs of the exams.
In his evidence to the parliamentary education committee last week Ron Tuck, former chief executive of the SQA, described the current arrangements as "working with one hand tied behind our backs". Mr Tck agrees that markers should be paid more and suggested the rates should be doubled, but said the cost would be pound;2.4 million. As things stand, this would add 20 per cent to the "entry charges" of local authorities.
Another obstacle is the requirement on the SQA to consult bodies such as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Scottish Colleges and even the Confederation of British Industry. Mr Tuck said that when this year's charges went up only marginally above inflation, "there were distinct rumbles".
The SQA recommended to the McCrone inquiry on teachers' pay and conditions that marking should become part of every teacher's contract. Mr Tuck said the present system meant that one of the most critical activities impacting on pupils rested on "voluntary professional labour".
Bill Morton, the SQA's interim chief executive, appeared before the parliament's education committee on Monday and said he was "mildly surprised that there is a reliance on the voluntary contribution of the time and expertise of the teaching profession".
"It is clear we will have to produce a more attractive proposition to overcome some of the natural reservations that the profession has about participating in marking in future," Mr Morton said.
The Scottish Executive is cautious about picking up the tab and moving away from the system under which exams are self-
financing. This is partly for financial reasons and partly because it was feared in the past that it would begin to erode the "arm's length" principle which keeps politicians out of any involvement in the running of exams.
This year's crisis, however, is almost certain to lead to a re-examination of that principle.
Inquest goes on, pages 4-5
Leader, page 20