SQA gets a new master

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
McConnell takes full responsibility and will demand early warning system to stop repeat of exams fiasco THE new Education Minister is set to take a brave political step in his first educational decision today (Friday). Jack McConnell is expected to announce that his department will assume full responsibility for the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The SQA had previously been answerable to the Department of Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, which was an uncomfortable home as this year's exams crisis centred largely on school results. The involvement of two ministers proved a less than happy political arrangement, although it was Sam Galbraith, the previous Education Minister, who took all the flak. But there will in future be no doubt as to who should also take the responsibility.

Mr McConnell decided to act after the publication of the report today of the independent inquiry carried out by the consultants Deloitte Touche. He was understood to be considering an action plan in response, which will include mechanisms for obtaining feedback on the SQA from schools and other stakeholders as well as an early warning system.

The failure of the SQA to respond openly and transparently to schools when its systems started to go wrong is one of the most heavily criticised aspects of this year's disaster. Mr McConnell's rapid response is also likely to have been influenced by the evidence repeatedly heard by the parliamentary education committee inquiry that not enough account was taken of warnings from schools and teachers, in contrast to the completereliance placed on reassurances from the SQA.

He is now taking the high-risk political gamble not only of accepting full political responsibility for the authority, but also of opening himself up to personal scrutiny if he fails to act on any warnings. He will be portrayed by Opposition politicans as being in operational as well as strategic charge, which could prove problematic.

Meanwhile, both Mr Galbraith, the former minister, and Bill Morton, the SQA's interim chief executive, separately dismissed tentative plans for an exams commissioner to act as a public watchdog, an idea floated by Henry McLeish when he was Lifelong Learning Minister. Giving evidence to MSPs on Wednesday, Mr Morton rejected the SNP suggestion of an "honest broker" to reassure the public about the authority's work after the latest embarrassing SQA failure to deliver all Higher appeals on time. Mr McConnell, whose son sat his Highers this year, was said to be "irate" at yet another failure to meet a deadline.

Mr Morton believed his extensive shake-up would be more effective, despite having to admit to being kept in the dark this week on missing the target date for appeals. It was "hauntingly like recent history".

But he did not believe he had been misled by officials. However, he added: "I had a right to be given more complete and accurate information in a timely way."

Of the 40,842 appeals at Higher, 196 in 70 centres missed the October 31 deadline. Mr Morton said the two-day delays were needed to recheck information.

Sam's blank paper, page 8

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