Appalling show in so many ways

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Raymond Ross asked schools around the country what problems they encountered with exam results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and what their recommendations to the Education Minister would be to rebuild confidence.

Peebles High School

Scottish Borders

Rob Kerr, headteacher


Beneath a smog of anecdote and individual horror story, the critical issue is clearly the complete loss of staff confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority, such that every departure from the "normal" is questioned as possible SQA error.

Within Peebles High, major concerns relate to school data which appears to have gone missing or been erroneously entered at SQA. Data transfer concerns were in fact surfacing well in advance of the examinations. At Higher Still major known problems were experienced by about 5 per cent of the student population and one of these - lost papers in craft, design and technology - remains unresolved.

Despite SQA assurances, there are still serious concerns in some subject areas about marking and the quality control thereof. In a school where experienced staff continued to use the prelim to inform predicted grades, there seems to be significant disparities between predictions and grades achieved. Disturbingly, there are suggestions of "batch" problems with alphabetical groups of pupils and individual markers.

The SQA helpline has not taken these issues on board but has simply offered the appeals system to address such concerns. Will it be able to cope with this year's deluge?


The core issue remains the restoration of confidence in the integrity of the SQA which would involve a thorough overhaul of its administration, its systems and management. Confidence must be restored in the marking system by the application of similar quality controls and the complexity of Higher Still itself must be addressed.

Arran High School

North Ayrshire

Ian MacLaren, depute head, SQA co-ordinator and geography teacher


We have perhaps got off lightly in terms of incomplete results with two candidates at Standard grade and six at Intermediate. But, like many other schools, we have had significant numbers of candidates who have achieved grades at Higher much lower than the school's estimates.

In geography all 11 candidates, who I felt were well prepared, received disappointing grades, with predicted A-grade candidates getting Cs or failing, and predicted B and C candidates failing badly. Similar problems have been experienced in chemistry, biology, history and maths.


All aspects of the Higher Still fiasco require investigation: the amount of internal assessment and its impact on the learning and teaching experienced by students; the ability of both the schools and the SQA systems to cope with the amount of assessment information that needs to be submitted; and the organisation and quality of marking.

In the face of so much evidence from schools, it is frightening that the Education Minister Sam Galbraith and Bill Morton, the acting head of the SQA, insist that there are no problems with marking. A freeze should be placed on Higher Still developments while a thorough investigation is carried out. Internal assessment should be reduced to manageable and realistic levels.

All new courses and computer systems should be piloted. We need proper quality control and realistic payment for markers. Higher Still strategy groups should have far greater input from classroom teachers.

The Edinburgh Academy


Jeremy Fenton, director of administration, teacher of English and communcations


When the Higher results came out my school was sent an e-mail which amounted to pages of numbers with never a name in sight. Once we had managed to interpret these, we found that all the English grades were very low. A set of internal marks was missing, it seemed.

This was odd because three weeks earlier I had been asked to fax a repeat copy of these. Receipt of the fax was confirmed. I had also been asked for pages of other missing unit results. Then a phone call cancelled this request. Then another phone call uncancelled it.

In spite of this we ended up with a dozen, strangely random missing or anomalous grades. By August 25 all but four of the English results had been corrected, although it looks as if there will be more appeals than usual.

Recommendations The flaw in the system is its complexity which was foisted on a previously efficient SQA. My cure would be first to abolish the internal unit assessments (the National Assessment Bank materials could become a teaching resource); and second, to overhaul the SQA's computer system, separating it from Scotvec.

At present the forms produced for us are invariably unfriendly in style and I wonder if the same is true of the data keying screens at SQA. The same is certainly true of the language style of SQA documents. They are in English - just - but there's not much communication. I think strong advice from the Plain English Society might help here.Alloa AcademyClackmannanshire Alan Reedie, principal teacher of mathematics Problems From the outset teachers knew that Higher Still was not going to be the easiest of processes. In particular, the amount of internal assessment caused concern. However, few teachers were prepared for the catalogue of problems which followed.

Documentation arrived late, changes were made to assessments already used, and re-testing became a grey area. Add to this concerns raised at national in-service which the Higher Still Development Unit and SQA appeared to sidestep, and confidence in the system was on the wane.

The early morning (Sunday) telephone call inviting staff to mark and the promise of double money for marking extra papers also seemed unusual. For maths candidates there was the added anxiety of the standard of the Higher papers. What action has been taken? Schools have certainly not been informed of any.

As if this was not enough, the total confusion over the results means that the SQA's credibility has all but disappeared. To date, statements made by the SQA appear to be concerned only with missing data with no mention of checking papers, marking or grades. There will be a significant increase in the number of appeals submitted (many via concerned parents). Will the SQA treat each appeal with due consideration?


When one considers that pupils have already embarked on the next diet of Higher Still courses, the question must be raised as to whether or not the SQA will cope. There will be more subjects, more candidates, and so more data to handle. Schools need honesty and openness from the SQA. A few words on a glossy pamphlet will not restore confidence. This fiasco gives education the chance to rethink the structure and role of the assessment body.

Tain Royal Academy


Andrew Ramsay, assistant headteacher and SQA co-ordinator


I have been expressing concern to the SQA about entries since last December and about likely problems with results since March.

On August 25 - 15 days after results were issued - we were still awaiting information about some Higher candidates and for virtually all the problems at other levels. We have incomplete results in seven Standard grades.

There is daily dialogue between the SQA and myself (and still faxes go missing at their end). They have just asked for Gaidhlig Higher Speaking grades for the fifth time!

I have spent 35 hours on SQA since we resumed after the summer. Normally at this stage co-ordinators would have spent very little time on SQA. Last year I spent 240 hours on SQA, and I have no faith this figure will be reduced this session. Pre-SQA computerisation, that time would be about 35 hours.


Many teachers have serious concerns about the ability of the SQA to deliver a workable system this session. There will be more new exams, while the mopping-up process from the present debacle will continue well after the time when we should be processing candidate entries for the coming year.

First and foremost the SQA must have a system to receive information and process it before it gets lost (sometimes we have had to fax the same information up to four times). Presumably this could be facilitated by having the centres and SQA linked electronically. Timing of exams, quality and timing of marking and the number of assessments all need examined. I fear the mire will get deeper this session!

Kirkwall Grammar School


David Drever, assistant headteacher and SQA co-ordinator


In reply to the school's statement of results, which arrived six days late, I faxed 32 pages to the SQA highlighting missing unit assessments, outrageous final grades and deleted candidates.

We have had distraught youngsters queuing up at Kirkwall Post Office being consoled by teachers on discovering that their results had not arrived; outraged staff finding top students apparently achieving less than 40 per cent in the exam; and bemused parents trying to make sense of an SQA certificate that would baffle a professor of semiotics!

The bulk of our problems have been missing unit assessments, but also final assessment problems in oralaural Intermediate 1 and 2 English, and there are serious doubts about the integrity of marking in Higher geography, craft and design and physics as well as inexplicably missing grades in Higher PE and modern studies.

This is a widely predicted crisis, and there can't be a school in the country that has not complained to the SQA about assessments sent but not arrived; data electronically transmitted but not recorded; and pupils entered for exams but missing from print-outs. Why did SQA management not respond to this year-long disaster in the making?

Sympathies to their foot soldiers who remain courteous and professional, and who have struggled with an impossible project that has failed spectacularly.


We need a simple, uniform and accessible data transmission procedure with a fail-safe system to pick up errors at SQA and in schools. Every exam centre should have a designated colleague in SQA, a human contact who can oversee - and if need be - override the electronic link. We need Higher Still courses that are not so choked with assessments that they threaten the integrity of the entire system.

St Aidan's High School

North Lanarkshire

Rosemary McDonald, headteacher


Problems we experienced included certificates issued to the school, not the candidates, and incomplete statements of results to the school. Repeated SQA requests for candidates' data, already sent two or three times, placed inordinate demands on the time and patience of senior staff throughout the school year and the summer holiday.

PE Higher candidates did not receive the full course award and we are still waiting for the full list of results. In home economics Higher, every candidate was awarded a band 9, against predictions. We suspect no accreditation was given for the technological project which was externally marked.

Subsequent re-grades came after dogged persistence by the assistant head and no explanation was offered even for one candidate moving from a band 9 to a B grade pass. The course award for every candidate in every subject was the same as the examination grade, highly questionable given the weighting factors in some subjects for externally marked projects, folios etc.


My recommendations would include dropping the onerous unit-by-unit registration; the SQA appointing systems verifiers to link directly with named schools; and immediate discussions between the SQA and education authorities regarding the IT specification required to manage schools' data processing (the manual issued was woefully inadequate).

The complicated certificates issued to candidates should be scrapped and the exam timetable for next year should be revised to provide an earlier finishing date, to allow sufficient marking time. There is an urgent need to review the recruitment, selection and training of markers and the SQAHigher Still unit needs to consult meaningfully with schools about what is and what is not achievable.

Hillhead High School


Judith O'Beirne, SQA co-ordinator and modern languages teacher


Problems arose with religious, moral and philosophical studies (RMPS) where candidates' results were far from expected. Over the past five years with the old Higher the department achieved a 75 per cent pass rate. This dropped to 28 per cent.

As they stand, these results are a bitter disappointment to candidates and departmental staff. RMPS appears to be problematic for at least two other Glasgow schools and we have been asked to submit unit assessment records to help the SQA investigate the results. Regarding marking, one colleague, an experienced teacher, was asked to mark papers for a course not taught in this school.

The teacher agreed to do this provided the papers arrived in time to allow a thorough preparation before the markers' meeting. When the papers did not arrive by the day of the meeting the teacher withdrew, feeling that attendance itself was not sufficient preparation for marking an "unknown" course.


If it were possible, I would recommend that we stand still for a year and that the introduction of new levels of courses be postponed until confidence is regained in the operation of the SQA.

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