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'Superhuman' efforts of unit earn praise

No one escapes blame in the most comprehensive and scathing report yet published on the exams debacle, which will be issued today, reports Neil Munro

AT THE ROOT of the SQA's problems was the sheer complexity of the operation with which it was confronted following the introduction of Higher Still.

The authority had to handle 4,374,425 pieces of data, and the extent of the different kinds of exams was such that 30,000 different course codes were used.

This compounded managerial failures over the development of new software and the inadequacies of staff.

A number of the committee's recommendations are therefore directed to simplifying the process, although one of them - the retention of unit results in schools unless the pupil has failed them - is already being implemented.

The committee also suggests that the Scottish Qualifications Certificate itself is too complex and contained "much redundant information which confused candidates when they did receive their results."

It says that unit achievements should be deleted if pupils have passed the external exam, cumulative certificates with regularly updated achievements should be abandoned unless candidates ask for them and "unsolicited and unwanted" core skills certification should be reviewed.

Although the education committee spreads its criticisms widely, it blames the SQA's collective management rather than any one individual.

Jack Greig, former head of the SQA's operations unit which was charged with the "secure conduct" of the exams, and who appeared to be left to carry he can by the SQA, is not censured. The report found his unit was "significantly understaffed" and was one of seven units reporting to David Elliot, the former director of awards, following an amalgamation of senior posts.

It quotes from an internal SQA paper which states that "the late availability of software placed exceptional pressures on the operations unit this year. Even the best managed unit would have struggled." The SQA said another 41 operational posts would be required, 33 in data processing. Temporary staff were drafted in to the operations unit in late spring but were not regarded as sufficiently experienced to sort out the problems.

The education committee report continues: "The operations unit had been effectively downgraded in the organisation in spite of its wider remit, accounting for approximately 8 per cent of SQA's permanent staffing complement compared to somewhere in the region of 20 per cent in the former SEB.

"This was an indication of the perilous strategy with which SQA approached the 2000 examination diet and illustrated the loss of focus of the SQA board and its management on a major part of its core business.

"It has to be said, however, that the staff of the operations unit went to often superhuman efforts to try to complete the tasks they had been given.

"Their dedication was unflinching, with experienced staff working 12-14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, from late spring on.

"It is deplorable that their efforts were not adequately supported by the board and the senior management."

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