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SQA will pay ultimate price

IN a statement that betrayed his anger and frustration with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, told MSPs on Wednesday: "Higher Still worked: the SQA failed to manage the data."

In a much-heralded statement, after which he came in for sustained and close questioning, Mr Galbraith sought to shield the Higher Still reforms and the education system at large from the fall-out over SQA mismanagement. He has agreed, however, to meet the Higher Still liaison group next week to discuss concerns over course assessment.

Mr Galbraith effectively signed the death warrant of the SQA in its present form, as it is set to become the most scrutinised body in the history of Scottish education. In addition to the internal inquiry by the authority's acting chief executive (page one), consultants from Deloitte Touche who will carry out the promised independent inquiry will report by October 31.

The Executive has also decided to bring forward the normal quinquennial review to which all quangos are subject and which was not due until 2002. It will address "fundamental questions about the way the organisation is constituted and its relationship with the (Scottish Executive Education) Department and ministers".

Mr Galbraith made it clear in response to questions from MSPs that "the status quo will not be an option". There was loud cheering when Labour backbenchers, demanded that whatever succeeds the SQA should be made more politically accountable. "All options will remain open", he said.

Mr Galbrith was unable to disguise his fury over repeated reassurances from the SQA that it was sorting out its computer and data handling problems - "reassurances that, at the end of the day, were worthless".

On May 10, the SQA told the Executive in writing that "all significant internal problems have been rectified".

Officials met the SQA on eight occasions between June 27 and August 9, the day before candidates were due to receive their results, to raise concerns and ask about contingency plans, in addition to continuing daily contact.

While critical of the SQA, Mr Galbraith did not endorse calls for scripts to be returned to schools so that confidence in marking could be restored. He questioned whether schools could handle the volume of work involved and drew a distinction between marking standards and the administration of marking.

He revealed that, out of 7,000 markers, eight cases were identified where probationers were used. "That should not have happened but it has not compromised marking standards," he said. Their marking was assessed and six were rated in the highest category of marker, grade A, and the other two in the second highest.

But Opposition critics who want Mr Galbraith's resignation were not impressed. David Mundell, the Tories' deputy education spokesman, said he should have been more "proactive".

And Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, icily contrasted Mr Galbraith's faith in reassurances from the SQA with his failure to believe what he was being told by teachers and parents.

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