Single exam body emerges as minister's unchangeable factor

21st September 2001 at 01:00
"THE concept of a single exam body remains as appropriate as it did when the SQA was established." This is the major conclusion of A Review of Options for the Future Status of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, issued along with the Education Minister's statement.

The options considered are:

* Privatisation

"Privatisation might well offer a viable model . . . However, the benefits of privatisation have to be set against the drawbacks of restricted direct control for ministers in the event that similar problems as were experienced last year arise again in the future. Partial privatisation may be viable in the future but this may be more effectively carried out under contracting out or market testing processes."

* Contracting out and market testing

"Contracting out all the functions of the SQA is unlikely to prove a viable short-term option. In the longer term, further contracting out or market testing of discrete areas of operations by the SQA would merit further consideration regardless of the organisational status of the SQA. Clearly it would be essential that any such contacts are properly specified and managed."

* Agency status

"Functions of the SQA would transfer to Scottish ministers and be delivered by an executive agency. The SQA's staff would become Scottish Executive staff, the SQA board would be stood down and a chief executive would manage the organisation's functions with day-to-day personal responsibility to Scottish ministers.

"The main concern about agency status is that it would impact on the independence of exams and encourage the view that these might be subject to political influence. Addressing concerns of this type would require maintaining confidence in the integrity of exams. However, this could be addressed by the establishment of a statutory qualifications committee, which would be supported by the executive agency.

"Recent experience of transferring (the SQA's functions) to an executive agency has shown that such transfers can cause significant disruption not only among staff but also in respect of an organisation's operational effectiveness. Given the fragility of the SQA at the moment, this would have to figure strongly in any consideration of future status."

* Retention as a quango

"The argument for retaining the SQA (as a quango) has been strengthened by the broadly successful delivery of certification 2001. However, the extent of the Executive's significant additional investment to achieve this outcome indicates that it will be some time before the long-term health of the organisation can be assured.

"Were (quango) status to be retained, the significant operational and management issues that gave rise to the original difficulties would need to be addressed as a priority . . . subject to significant management and operational weaknesses being addressed, the retention of SQA (as a quango) is a viable option. However, in order to overcome these weaknesses a robust recovery strategy based on identified failings should be developed and implemented."

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