Board was left in the dark

25th August 2000 at 01:00
MEMBERS of the Scottish Qualifications Authority board say there was nothing more they could have done to prevent the chaos of the past two weeks.

In a robust response to speculation about a clear-out and radical restructuring, they insist the problems that dogged Higher Still assessment throughout the session were brought to the attention of senior officials. But they were repeatedly assured the authority was coping with the difficulties.

Even up to the last minute, they did not know the extent of the crisis. Malcolm Green, former education convener in Glasgow, said: "If the chairman and chief executive did not know the extent, we certainly did not."

The board met last week in what one member called "sombre mood" and was told the problems were largely caused by data entry and data mismanagement.

Patricia Cairns, head of Firrhill High, Edinburgh, was disappointed the authority had not contacted councils and schools to alert them to the delays in the first place. "We could have been supportive and prepared, but everyone was left feeling so foolish."

Mrs Cairns, a leading member of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, added: "I can assure you the structure of the courses, the problems with multiple assessments and reassessments were constantly brought before the board, as were issues about the later finish of exams and the consequent squeeze on marking time. But we were never apprised of the volume of information."

Shelagh Rae, director of education in Renfrewshire, asked if she would have done anything different, said: "I believe board members did ask the hard questions and were given assurances by Ron Tuck (the departed chief executive), his directors and chairman.

"Yes, they knew there ere problems that squared with what we knew and everything was done to resolve them. But nothing came to light about the information not entered."

She added: "We have to find out exactly what caused the problems - who knew and wasn't telling."

She wrote to the Scottish Executive at the end of June outlining her unease about missing information, pointing out that schools were still being contacted to provide it. "I was concerned that there was still a problem and that we needed to look at what was causing the problem to make sure it did not happen again."

Board members were told that the difficulties were caused by a new computer system that had problems linking with school systems. Extra money was found to iron out the irregularities.

Mrs Rae believes ministers and civil servants were given the same information as the board received throughout June, July and August. It was now important to regain public confidence. "We have got to hold on to the fact that both the SQA and its previous organisations had a tremendous track record for efficiency and effectiveness and it is premature to say we need to change this."

Margaret Nicol, president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said it would not be helpful for the board to resign. "We should await the outcome of the independent inquiry."

Ms Nicol added: "I am quite clear that there is nothing we could have done or any question I could have asked which would have prevented what has happened, given that the chief executive himself did not know. The board could not have got involved in operational matters."

Whatever shake-up emerges, ministers do not want to lose the existing broad-based representation on the board. By David Henderson

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