Exam chiefs stuck in remedial class

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Neil Munro reports on the brave front at the SQA as the flak continues to fly.

You have got to feel for the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

In more than 20 years, it would be difficult to recall any organisation in Scotland which was more accountable and more scrutinised, yet more vilified and held in more contempt.

The authority's response has been to turn itself inside out and admit it is not yet "fit for purpose" while running exams under the public, media and ministerial gaze with a staff it itself admits is still demoralised. Every minor blemish with which all organisations have to contend and which may have gone unnoticed in the past has been ruthlessly exposed and it has had to be painfully frank.

There have been innumerable inquiries - by the SQA itself, by the Deloitte and Touche consultants and by the parliamentary education and lifelong learning committees. Then there is the Executive's own quinquennial review to which all quangos are subject.

In addition it submits monthly reports to the Education Minister, briefs the media every six weeks, has to submit to a ministerial "early warning" group, has appointed accounts managers to work with groups of schools, is about to name a communications manager, issues a regular newsletter specifically on national qualifications, is seconding school and college staff to join its senior management and is sending out all its data for a final check by schools in April.

Bill Morton, the SQA's chief executive, found himself facing yet another grilling on Tuesday, this time by the Parliament's education committee. He had to tread a fine line between reassurance which might earn the rebuke of complacency and over-honest appraisal which might set alarm bells ringing.

Mr Morton succeeded in pulling off this neat trick, but faced MSPs whose probing owed more to a tabloid cuttings service than to their own research or constituency mailbag.

The four-person SQA team was relentlessly probed: thecommittee seemed interested mainly in finding out whether last year's crisis was going to be repeated. A First Minister might give guarantees but the SQA could not afford to be hoist with that petard. It has already made clear, after all, that it is operating a recovery plan which could take five years. So how could it say it has recovered.

All Mr Morton could say with certainty to Michael Russell of the SNP, his most persistent inquisitor, was: "Although there is still a lot to do, I can guarantee that we are doing all we can to make sure candidates and their families suffer no repetition of the problems last year." As he put it: "Knowing just where we are is a major improvement on last year."

The authority's chief problem is one of expectations. The public and the profession "have expectations that last year's problems can be fixed within one year which is not realistic", Mr Morton said.

The authority has not often helped its own case, however, displaying a fondness for management-speak and techno-babble about critical success factors, risk assessment, the stability of IT systems, project plans and data matching.

It has none the less had to deal with a press whose grasp of all the issues is sometimes less than perfect, wilfully or otherwise. A particularly fine example of this was the allegation that the error rate had acturally gone up this year from 2.7 per cent to 3 per cent.

It emerged that the first figure relates to the entirety of the certification, while the latter is about entry data problems in the Strathclyde area only where the SQA receives information via the SEEMIS school administration system.


* The SQA now estimates it needs 8,000 markers not 7,500, plus 10 per cent "for comfort". It has contracted with 6,052, has issued invitations to another 1,307, has 1,200 on a reserve list and is vetting a further 500.

Ironically, news of shortages boosted offers to mark.

Leader, page 20

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