Standards are in safe hands

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Farquhar Macintosh says the Scottish Qualifications Authority can build on a tradition of excellence.

As one who advocated the merger of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, I welcome the establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Examinations were designed for an academic elite and required redesigning from time to time to equip us with a better qualified workforce. It is not surprising, therefore, that the story of reform is the story of attempts to increase participation in education and reconcile the egalitarian principle of "assessment for all" with the realities of a competitive society.

For some time the logic of events has been pointing in the direction of a unified system of curriculum, assessment and awards. The task of achieving a balance between academic and vocational education will not be easy and there is bound to be tension between the different philosophies of assessment as the new authority settles in. I am confident, however, that the tension will be creative and the SQA will be able to build effectively on the expertise, experience and respective strengths of its predecessors.

As the inheritor of a system of public examinations that had been well organised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate for more than three-quarters of a century, the exam board can pass on a tradition of excellence which has certain distinguishing features. The first - and one universally accepted - is efficiency. To run every year since 1964 such a vast and complex operation, and one that has been almost error free, is a truly remarkable record. It has been achieved only because of the checks and cross-checks built into the system. So successful has the board been in its main aim of justice for all that there has developed, as Henry Philip has put it in his history, "something approaching blind faith in its integrity and reliability".

Allied to efficiency has been humanity. The board's concern has always been with fairness for the individual candidate. This has resulted in an open-mindedness in seeking the best assessment techniques and much of the board's acceptability and success has sprung from its partnership with the teaching profession, a partnership so strong that it survived the strikes of the mid-eighties.

Special arrangements have enabled candidates to sit exams at home or in hospital, at sea or in the air, in prison or on educational excursions abroad. There is also the consideration shown to candidates who are disadvantaged, whether through accident or inherited disability. Such compassion, I hope, the SQA will strive to continue. Since assessment is a form of torture for most people, we should always be seeking for greater humanity.

The board's original remit in 1888 was "to provide, under a national guarantee of integrity and standard, a common school examination" and this the SEB has sought to maintain. In 1992, an independent policy review praised its quality control and assurance systems, a position confirmed last year in a study by the Scottish Council for Research in Education. At a time when standard setting south of the border has been questioned, this is a matter for pride in the credibility and currency of the awards.

Such quality control is critical to the retention of public confidence in the system and its effectiveness in ensuring comparability across the country and over the years.

In terms of assessment principles, then the board's bequest to the SQA will be its long-standing concern for national standards. SCE examinations have always had the fall-back of internal assessment through the appeals process, a feature developed radically in Standard grade with the introduction of computerised checking of internal assessments. We know that purely external assessment is unlikely to produce a "true" order of merit.

The Advisory Council report of 1947 made this point and has been quoted in this regard ever since. But the same report maintained with equal strength - though with little subsequent recognition - that school assessment was not in itself a satisfactory basis for national certification, concluding with the offer for the whole age-group of a mixed form of assessment similar in principle, if not in mechanics, to Standard grade.

The SQA will inherit Standard grade and the proposals of Higher Still, both of which reflect the view I have put forward. What has to be accepted is that all assessment, whether in schools or in the local flower show, in colleges or the High Court, has an element of subjectivity in the judgment of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. Even where criteria are clearly defined through training and the issue of exemplar material, it simply is not fair to candidates to pretend that subjectivity does not exist. The legitimate and essential contribution of internal assessment to national certification must be subject to national control and the board would, I am sure, hope that this bequest will be readily accepted by the SQA.

In conclusion, then, the establishment of the SQA is a significant event in the evolution of our assessment arrangements. It will now be up to it to safeguard standards as carefully in the future as they have been in the past and to stimulate the curricular development which changes in society will make necessary. I wish Ron Tuck and his colleagues every success in the central role they will have to play in the future prosperity of our country.

Dr Farquhar Macintosh is a recent chairman of the Scottish Examination Board.

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