Appetite for exams diet

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Janet Brown takes a scientific approach in her job as new chief executive of the SQA

THIS IS Janet Brown's first exams diet - but she is displaying none of the nerves assailing other first-timers as they open their first paper this week.

The new chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority did not even sit Highers when she was at school - she went to an all-girls' grammar school in Sheffield where A-levels were the currency.

Dr Brown's affiliation, however, is to the Scottish examinations system rather than the English one. In fact, when she took a 40 per cent pay cut to move from a senior job with Motorola in America to join Scottish Enterprise, part of her motivation was to give her family a Scottish education.

She values its combination of breadth and depth. The American system was very broad but lacked depth of coverage, whereas in England pupils have to choose their specialist subjects too early. "A young person in Scotland can be taking five Highers and still have a choice of whether to do physics, art or English," she says.

Dr Brown's predecessor, Anton Colella, came from a schools background. She is not an educationist. Her career, before moving to the SQA, spanned scientific research in America, business management with Motorola, a year with the company in East Kilbride, and back to America for more high-powered electronics management.

Her background in science - a physics degree from Birmingham University and a PhD in metallurgy - has made her passionate about its importance. With uptake for the subject dropping, she wants more be done in upper primary to ignite children's interest.

Six years ago, Dr Brown moved to Scotland to join Scottish Enter-prise, where she was managing director of industries. That year - 2000 - was the nadir of the authority, the year of its exam results disaster. But if its staff thought they had put "the fiasco" behind them, they were reckoning without Jack McConnell, the Labour leader, and his recent attempts to score points over Alex Salmond, his SNP counterpart.

One of Mr McConnell's main charges has been that while in 2000 he, as education minister, was sorting out the examinations crisis, Mr Salmond had "cut and run" to Westminster.

Dr Brown reacts with equanimity. "People always bring up bad news," she says. "Politicians, especially at a time like this, look at the pluses and minuses of the time they were in power. It's important that we just focus on the job."

This interview coincides with her first meeting with the authority's operations group, which performs what she describes as "the coalface part of the diet. It's really reassuring to see the mechanisms in place and to see what is going on."

One of the biggest issues on her agenda beyond the immediate exams diet will be how assessment changes dovetail with the curriculum reforms, in particular at the S3 stage, which is covered by level 4 of A Curriculum for Excellence.

After the summer, the authority will be launching a consultation on that issue. Should S3 be the stage when pupils sit their Standard grade or Intermediate 1 or 2 courses - or should it be S4? Should assessment at that stage be internal or external? Indications suggest that the consultation will include face-to-face dialogue, backed up by research evidence of best practice from elsewhere in the UK, and comparisons with other countries.

Of course, the major issue with for the authority is the future of Standard grade and reductions in the burdens of external assessment. Dr Brown replies diplomatically when asked to speculate: "Pupils will be taking Standard grades if that is what everyone thinks is needed."

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