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SQA shake-up gets under way

The first proud holders of Scottish Qualifications Authority certificates can already show them off. A batch listing passes in National Certificate and other modules was dispatched this week. In a public sense the SQA is in business.

But less than a month after its April 1 birth, the authority will face its real test, administering the Standard grade and Higher examinations. Any mix-ups or blunders and the SQA becomes a household acronym for the wrong reasons. While Ron Tuck, the authority's chief executive, knows the importance of getting across the changes which have led to a merger of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, he is naturally cautious.

"Business as usual" is the watchword for the staff, nearly 500 strong between the Dalkeith and Glasgow offices and much supplemented at this time of year by temporary helpers. Since the examination board had an almost unblemished record for care and precision in the setting, sitting and marking process, this year's exams should pass off normally.

For Mr Tuck, formerly a chief inspector much associated with both examining bodies because of his involvement in the Higher Still programme, business as usual has extra significance: the election campaign has ruled out public launches of the SQA across the country. Its creation was not controversial among the political parties, but care had to be taken lest the Government choose to claim it as among its "achievements".

Much effort has gone into reassuring staff inherited from the SEB and Scotvec. The two headquarters are being retained, or rather, according to a waggish employee, "there is one site with a long and draughty corridor and no head office". To bridge the 50-mile gap, information technology is vital, as it is to the examinations process. The SQA inherited two different systems, and the techno-buffs are presently ensuring that they "migrate towards each other".

The pattern of senior responsibilities is pointedly described as the "day one structure". Mr Tuck is keen to emphasise that changes will be accompanied by consultation. "We intend to be brisk but measured," he says, adding that at the two centres "there are two sets of expertise developed over a long period. You cannot re-create that kind of accumulated experience." In Glasgow and Dalkeith there are "many young staff who are flexible and open to change".

An example of harmonising different ways of operating concerns the approval of exam centres. For Scotvec the procedure involved meeting specific criteria. For the exam board every secondary school presenting candidates was an exam centre.

Where centres continue to present candidates in subjects previously offered, "approval" will be automatic. If a school or college wants to extend its range, an approval mechanism will be applied.

Like schools and colleges, the SQA waits to find out the future of Higher Still and the pace of introduction. But the authority is anxious that people do not lose sight of its wider role. Whatever the nature of future exams, thousands of young people will soon be holders of SQA certificates.

WHO DOES WHAT

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has five divisions headed by three former Scottish Examination Board officials and two from the Scottish Vocational Education Council.

* Dennis Gunning (ex-Scotvec) looks after the development division which includes the exam officers, the former Scotvec schools unit and the design and production of documents.

* David Elliot (ex-SEB) heads the assessment and quality assurance division, which sets and marks the exams, moderates internal assessment and undertakes other forms of quality assurance such as audits of exam centres.

* Don Giles (ex-Scotvec) is in charge of human resource management and external relations, including accreditation and marketing.

* Tommy Salvona (ex-SEB) has responsibility through the operations division for exam diets, certification and information technology.

* Matthew Brown (ex-SEB) looks after the finance and services division, which includes publications.

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