SQA escapes axe in shake-up

21st September 2001 at 01:00
THE Education Minister has acknowledged that the exam system is still not reliable enough. But, as foreshadowed in last week's TES Scotland, he has rejected calls for radical change such as abolition of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to avoid "an unacceptable distraction that could put delivery of next year's exams at risk".

In a special statement to the Scottish Parliament last week, Jack McConnell outlined his preferred alternative package to "reform the SQA and simplify exams", which accepts in full a review carried out by his officials. Legislation would be needed. The plan includes:

* A reformed SQA board slimmed down to between seven and nine members, appointed by ministers who will ensure there is an induction process and training.

* A separate advisory body to provide advice on qualifications and education matters, allowing the SQA board to concentrate on management.

* A new statement clarifying the roles of the SQA and Scottish Executive, with the former being required to set out its plans for delivering the exam diet every year.

* Mechanisms to ensure the board operates effectively, meets regularly, communicates properly and listens to stakeholders.

* Consultation on the two options previously aired, along with any others, to streamline assessment in National Qualifications courses - reinforced by reviews of particular subjects, principally English and Communication.

Mr McConnell has rejected suggestions that the SQA might be absorbed into his department, but accepted that was the de facto position this year when he paid tribute to "the very many civil servants in our own education department who helped deliver this year's success".

He singled out in particular Colin McLean, the exams czar. "Not many people would have accepted without hesitation the role of national exam co-ordinator. He was brave and committed, when his experience and abilities were needed, and I am sure we are all very grateful he said yes."

Mr McConnell went on to say, however, that in effect "things cannot go on like this". He added: "This year's timely delivery of accurate certificates simply represents a return to an acceptable standard of performance."

Mr McConnell's argument for leaving the SQA intact rested on the importance of the exams body being seen to be free from political pressures. He also said: "The priorities which led to the creation of a single national awarding body - the promotion of parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications and the creation of a coherent and integrated national qualifications framework - remain key objectives for us all."

Neither the parliamentary education nor lifelong learning committee had recommended radical changes to the governance of the SQA, he pointed out.

His view is that "the keys to successful delivery of the SQA's functions will be effective management and improved communications". He conceded that there are sufficient pressures and concerns in the system to make it clear that "a great deal needs to be done".

Unison, one of the unions representing SQA staff, gave what it called a cool reception to the statement. Matt McLaughlin, its regional officer, said: "The idea of some kind of advisory committee is not a bad idea, but we noticed there appears to be no place on this body for staff representatives (who) are the closest to the workings of the organisation and see the first sign of what is going wrong."

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