SQA defies knights of the long knives

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Francesca Capaldi abandoned her television interviewer, leapt up from the table and ran around the room in a spontaneous outburst of relief and euphoria. She declared to the nation her love for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and proposed marriage to the Education Minister, Jack McConnell.

This was the memorable image of this year's results, a young girl ecstatic with joy on receiving news of her success. Francesca's proud moment was shared by the whole school and became a talking point among staff, as they embarked on another demanding session.

We were untroubled as to whether the national pass rate had increased by 1 per cent, 10 per cent or 50 per cent. After 28 years in this business, I confess that I have never lost much sleep over this vital statistic. Nor do leaps and dips in the national figures preoccupy the good citizens of Portobello and Restalrig in Edinburgh. They are anxious that their children do their best, and they do care deeply for the progress of their school.

When Mr McConnell had to announce that the increase in the pass rate declared by the SQA in the morning papers was erroneous (not 7 but 1.3 per cent), Francesca was unconcerned, Holy Rood was unmoved, while the Scottish public heaved a momentary sigh.

"Humiliation for the SQA," declared the television news reporter. "Disaster," cried the opposition politicians, whose function is to oppose. The grudging recognition of the SQA's recovery from last year's abyss was promptly jettisoned and the knives were out once more; a chink in the defences had been spotted.

Throughout the year, the dead-pan assurances of the SQA's chief executive, Bill Morton, that the system was under control scarcely ignited the curiosity of the lieges. To inject some life into the debate, a catastrophe would simply have to be found.

The vultures sniffed a tasty morsel when an SQA computer reportedly exploded. Images were presented of Morton with singed eyebrows holding smoking wires, while the internal assessment results from Scottish schools were blown to the four winds. Not to worry, we were assured. It was only a wee explosion.

What about the reports in the spring that all the top dogs in the SQA had jacked in their jobs and were heading for sunnier climes? The last man out would unplug all the computers. This tale was declared "highly worrying", but the frontline troops of the SQA soldiered on in spite of disconcerting tremors rumbling overhead.

Then came the shortfall in markers. If the reluctance of teachers to sign up persisted, invigilators might be told to announce to candidates at the end of the exams, "Now, swap with your neighbour." The SQA scoured the country, secondary heads released teachers to mark from morning till night and the wagons were back on the track.

Horribile dictu! As the great day approached hundreds of candidates' papers or details had gone missing. It was something of an anti-climax to learn that few, if any, had gone missing.

While this torrent of recrimination flooded the national arena, Veronica Kirk, Holy Rood's main contact at the SQA, worked tirelessly and unstintingly to iron out difficulties and to remove any glitches from the system. With her help, Wendy Doran, our SQA co-ordinator, offered prompt responses to staff concerns. Particularly on results day, the SQA's customer care was exemplary, investigating serious issues on the spot. The commitment of their staff should be acknowledged and they are to be congratulated on their tenacity and resilience.

Abolishing the SQA is no more likely to create a more robust exam system than dismantling Railtrack to make trains run on time. Maybe we all need to follow Francesca's example and love the SQA a little bit more.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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