Exams relay race reaches its final leg
Any day now, the Scottish Qualifications Authority will hit the red button that signals the start of the all-important certification process for this summer's exams.
Of course, there is not really a red button - it's a metaphorical one. Staff will "click off" a series of computer programs that are part of the final countdown.
When The TESS caught up with the operations team at Dalkeith a couple of weeks into the school summer holidays, Rhona Wright, head of service for external assessment and delivery of national qualifications, and her two managers, Carole Forrest and Heather Wilson, were as relaxed as it is possible to be at this stage.
Their busiest time is usually June, when, as part of the quality assurance process, their staff do checks with the schools and colleges that have entered candidates.
Most of the 75,000 packets of scripts have been returned by the 7,500 markers employed by the SQA by the end of June. Staff must then check that each script matches up with the unique entry number assigned to each candidate.
Sometimes, candidates sit exams without having been entered by their school or college; sometimes they sit one paper but not the second; sometimes handwritten marks by the markers have to be double-checked; a small number of malpractice cases have to be investigated - the problems are many and various. But by mid-July, the SQA staff are at the stage of chasing up any final queries and closing down all the data.
Mrs Wilson explained: "We have a means of tracking every package we get: the EX6s process. It's a multi-function form, an attendance register for the school and a marks capture form for the marker. We can track that packet until the end of the process, from the centre to the marker through any internal processes and then to its resting place on the shelf."
Markers have to work within a very tight timeframe, according to Miss Wright, and contingencies have to be in place in case a marker - for whatever reason - is unable to fulfil his or her commitments at the last minute.
"We have replacement people in the wings," she said.
Each marker has to send in a sample of his or her work early in the marking process, so it can be double-checked to ensure it is of the right standard - a part of the quality assurance process.
Once the SQA is happy that all the markers meet the standard, staff input the marks into its computer system. It is an enormous job, with marks for 1.6 million scripts having to be entered, and that is not counting the estimates and internal assessment marks that are also submitted by exam centres.
If a candidate has sat the external exam but an internal assessment mark has not been received, the SQA will have to contact the school or college to find out why it is missing. Without it, the candidate will not receive a full award.
Once all the scripts have been marked, the principal assessor and his examining team meet to set the grade boundaries. This is just one of 1,800 meetings a year that the operations team attends, and because the majority of markers and senior examiners are practising teachers, many of the meetings have to be held outside school hours.
This year, for the first time, a number of scripts - mainly question and answer booklets - are being scanned electronically and emailed, so they can be marked online.
"If you are a marker, you don't have to handle the physical scripts or have the courier knocking on your door," Miss Wright said. "It takes away the inconvenience of the administrative burdens and automatically tallies up all your marks.
"We are trying to enhance the marker's experience, plus it facilitates dialogue with them," she said.
Amid all this, the possibility of swine flu affecting pupils, markers, examiners or SQA staff has been ever-present. The threat brings to the fore the main duties for the operations team - risk assessment and contingency planning.
Once certification week is completed successfully, the team will turn its attention to appeals planning and preparation.
"All of our staff can work extra-long days. At certain times there is also weekend working. It's a seven-day-a-week process," Miss Wright said.
Miss Wright and Mrs Wilson both worked for the SQA at the time of the exams crisis in 2000, albeit in slightly different roles. They remember vividly the long hours and anxiety involved in trying to get things back on track that year - working until all hours in the morning, and people catching a few hours' sleep in chairs.
"We are very much more focused on planning and preparation now," Miss Wright said. "That is why we are so obsessed with locking down and ensuring compliance and accuracy of data before certification."
Ms Forrest, who joined the SQA later, said: "One of the things that struck me most when I came was that when people here talk about 750,000 entries, they see these as individual people and the impact on them."