As Scotland's unified exams body prepares for its first annual conference in Glasgow next Tuesday, Neil Munro talks to Ron Tuck, the chief executive
The Scottish Qualifications Authority has been deliberately keeping its head down while finding its feet in its first year. Now, however, the SQA's purdah period in which it cultivated an air of business as usual is coming to an end and some radical changes are afoot.
Ron Tuck, the authority's chief executive, is much exercised by the "two cultures" he inherited. Unlike C P Snow's worries about the split between the arts and sciences, Mr Tuck's mission is to harmonise the academic, school-based activities of the former Scottish Examination Board and the vocational, college-based orientation of the late Scottish Vocational Education Council.
The "cultural divide" which he believes separates schools and colleges led him recently to suggest a common teaching qualification for all teachers and lecturers. And bridging that academic-vocational gap, a key purpose of the Higher Still programme, is now something the SQA intends to tackle within its own four walls.
In fact, the organisation has more than four walls. Surprisingly perhaps, there are no plans to merge its Dalkeith (SEB) and Glasgow (Scotvec) offices despite the fact that this may be seen as embodying the old divisions.
"I don't want to lose valued and experienced staff by centralising our operations on one site," Mr Tuck says. He aims to avoid the stresses and strains of constant travel along the M8 by investing in video-conferencing.
But there are proposed changes which will not be painless for some staff. The SQA wants to create a new breed of qualifications manager to replace the SEB's examination officers and Scotvec's product development managers. This will require some Dalkeith-based exam officers to move to Glasgow. A number prefer the alternative of early retirement and Unison, the public sector union, has been brought into talks with the SQA management.
The staff shake-up is linked to a more substantial, but also symbolic, change which will sweep away the teacher-dominated SEBsubject panels and Scotvec's sector groups composed of business as well as educational interests.
They will be replaced by 15 broad-based advisory groups, each covering a "family of subjects" and to which the qualifications managers will be responsible. Under proposals issued for a consultation in April, these groups are intended to be up and running by August 1999.
Some criticism has already been voiced from within the SQA that the groups will be far too broad to do their job competently, with responsibilities ranging from Standard grade to Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs). One, for example, will be responsible for language, communication and the creative arts, another for science and maths, a third for the social subjects.
Mr Tuck acknowledges this wide remit but says the groups have been deliberately structured to keep an eye on "the big picture" in an integrated way. He also points out that 38 assessment panels will be set up as subgroups to provide a more specific focus on internal and external assessment for individual subjects.
"It's a radical integration and will be a steep learning curve for the staff," Mr Tuck says. "The world of Standard grades and Highers is relatively stable and straightforward, while the world of SVQs is volatile and complex. That will be a challenge for the ex-SEB staff. On the other hand, former Scotvec staff will have to learn how to handle external assessment."
His other preoccupation, as Higher Still dramatically expands the significance of assessment, is "to manage a flexible system while maintaining rigorous standards, which no examination body in the world has been able to do.
"I believe the key is to have flexible external assessment. We are committed to internal and external assessment, where there is general agreement that both work best in combination. But it is important that external assessment does not impede the flexibility to which FE colleges have become accustomed.
"A typical Scottish group award under Higher Still, for example, will have three elements of external assessment. One will be the formal examination but the other two could be course work which will be externally assessed in controlled and supervised conditions."
The authority's 1,144-strong force of moderators and verifiers (likely to be simply entitled moderators from next year) will play a key part in monitoring school and college assessment with the advent of Higher Still. Following consultation, the SQA has agreed that evidence will be submitted for scrutiny rather than moderators visiting schools and colleges.
"Moderation will be high initially and be seen to be high," Mr Tuck says. This will develop eventually into a targeted approach which will concentrate on inconsistencies between internal and external examination results. The authority plans ongoing research to keep a check on standards.