SQA bosses play it safe with exams overhaul

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Belt and braces approach means no radical shake-upof internal assessment, reports David Henderson

Fears about software glitches at the Scottish Qualifications Authority may rule out any tinkering this session with the way schools and colleges record internally assessed units in the Higher Still programme.

The authority is desperate not to cause any more instability and may run with broadly the same system as last summer after completing its review of how centres send back information about students' completion of units. A final decision is expected shortly.

Many of the exam problems stemmed from the way in which centres passed information to the SQA. This forced Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, to give a pledge last November to amend the recording of internal assessment. Schools and colleges would advise the SQA by May 31 of any units which students failed, or where they had had results deferred or withdrawn. All others would be treated as a pass, it was suggested.

But at a monthly press briefing this week, SQA bosses were more coy about the extent of reform. Professor John Ward, interim SQA chairman, and Bill Morton, chief executive, stressed the different context in which unit recording will take place. Much more work had been carried out this year in checking candidates' entries for exams.

Mr Morton said improvements on internal assessment would involve an element of risk and it was yet to be decided if that was worth taking.

"It's not exactly the same system as last year. Schools and colleges did not know last year what data we held on their behalf. We now know all of that and we can identify problems quickly and fix them. I hope as a result of that people will have more confidence in the system tha we operate," he said.

"I would also highlight the fact that although we had problems with inadequate data going into the system and therefore inadequate results, by and large the system did what it was supposed to do and that gives us good reason not to tinker."

The authority's new validation procedures would help eliminate most of the data difficulties, Mr Morton said. It would be "foolhardy" to introduce further significant changes that might jeopardise the successful delivery of next summer's exams. "We want to make sure that the system is stable this year and concentrate on what is absolutely essential to get it right. This is a belt and braces approach the SQA is adopting," he said.

Professor Ward said: "We are very anxious we have stability and minimise changes to the software."

The backdrop is believed to be a desire by the teacher unions to avoid any more additions to workload that would flow from further changes and a continuing divide between schools and the further education sector over internal unit assessment. Colleges are more familiar with the routine.

The SQA also revealed that it is only 100 markers short of its target of 8,000, although it has only half of its required 800 moderators for internal assessment. Twenty-seven out of 521 schools have not yet registered details of candidates while 70 per cent of the 1.3 million course entries have been processed.

In total, 481 schools have submitted entries, leaving 85 to complete the picture. Some are special schools. The outstanding data was "manageable" and should be cleared within two weeks, Mr Morton said.

Two or three new general managers will be appointed this week to oversee organisational restructuring.

Leader, page 16

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