They jumped the red light and crashed

25th August 2000 at 01:00
The exams crisis has fundamental origins, Neal McGowan argues

LIKE most other Scottish headteachers, I have watched with growing concern the ever increasing problems in the organisation and processing of the national qualifications examinations. Trying to introduce new courses within the Higher Still programme was difficult enough without having to cope with an examination body that has progressively lost all credibility and the confidence of the staff in schools.

A few of the warning signs of a developing crisis over the past session were assessment arrangements being changed after the teaching of courses had already begun, necessary assessment materials delayed for many subject areas and growing confusion regarding arrangements for assessment and moderation.

Senior staff in schools had to be on-call throughout their summer holidays to cope with the Scottish Qualifications Authority's lack of efficiency in processing data with respect to individual candidate presentations and unit assessment grades. The assistant head in my own school responsible for assessment had to deal with numerous calls from the SQA during the holiday period.

The same assessment data was asked for two and three times in different formats: first by disk transfer, then by paper copy and, finally, over the telephone. As this information had all previously been forwarded in the specified format to the SQA at Easter, just what actually happened to it?

Much of the data vital to efficient examination administration at school and college level was incomplete when the examinations began. Due to this something happened which had not been experienced in previous years. Many schools in May and June had not received all the necessary question papers, either in terms of subjects and levels andor quantities required.

The stopgap answer from the SQA was for someone to open up the emergency packs which had been sent out before the examination diet, find the single copy of that particular question paper and then photocopy the number of copies required.

These and many other issues have been building up over a lengthy period. We are now faced with the bizarre manner in which the results themselves have been issued, or in some instances not issued at all. Pronouncements by spokespersons of the SQA varied almost from minute to minute and reflected many of the elements we would normally expect to be contained in farcical productions on the Fringe of the Edinburgh Festival.

No candidate who sits a national examination should be subjected to the blunders which have become apparent over the past few days.

The root cause of all of this, we are told, is the massive change which had to take place at the SQA due to the introduction of Higher Still and the associated difficulties of introducing a new IT system to cope with its demands. If we assume this to be the case, we need to ask why teachers and their pupils were subjected to this sham before the system was ready to cope with it.

Responsibility does not only lie with the SQA, but also with the Higher Still Development Unit and the Scottish Executive, which forged ahead regardless.

I have to admit that my own fears regarding Higher Still surfaced early on in the development when, as an initial member of the working party on design, engineering and technology, the agenda was hijacked by the needs of further education rather than what was right for schools. The preference was for the line of least resistance.

From my memory (it is four or five years ago), a working group of about 20 individuals included three practising school teachers - and at that time I was a depute head. I have to say that the school voice was a marginalised one throughout the process. It became even more marginalised when I suddenly found myself no longer required on the group after making my feelings known.

It appears to me that schools have not been key players in many of the Higher Still decisions. How many schools, for example, are supporters of the unit assessment burden which is essentially a requirement of further education (albeit that a number of school candidates will benefit from the unit assessment arrangements)?

The good practice of the former Scottish Examination Board has also been marginalised since the creation of the SQA. In the past, examination officers were individuals who had been practising teachers in their own examination subject areas. This, together with the high-quality subject panels and examination teams with many years of experience in teaching, marking and setting, created a level of quality assurance which was second to none.

Markers in the past had to have a proven track record of successful presentation over a number of years in their particular subject area. We had a situation this year where the SQA advertised for anyone who was qualified to teach the subject concerned to become a marker. Even more worrying is the fact that some markers, who under no circumstances would have been re-employed due to clearly identified unreliable marking standards, were sought out and employed this year to get the SQA out of a scrape.

In the past, exam papers used to be both set and moderated almost two years in advance of the examination diet. We hear stories from the SQA this year that some of the papers were not in place by Christmas of last year. It is little wonder that we had a situation like the one relating to the Higher mathematics examination which caused so much outrage.

What was interesting at the time of the Higher maths crisis was that no one seemed to mention the fact that the Intermediate 2 paper was ridiculously undemanding, and so much easier than Credit level at Standard grade.

For many years I had the great privilege to be a Higher grade setter and I know the many safeguards put in place to check every piece of work was completed. After my (brief) experience of doing similar work with the SQA, it was my impression that many of these were being removed for various procedural and economic reasons. We now have a situation where some of the qualifications managers (successors to the examination officers) are not subject specialists. So they may have no knowledge whatsoever of the subject content they are in charge of.

All these matters might have been dismissed as the ramblings of someone overly associated with the old system if the SQA had, as promised, come up with something which was inherently better. As this is demonstrably not the case, we need to take a serious look at what has happened to school qualifications since 1997. It is not only a matter of national concern but also a cause of great sadness that our previous "gold standard" assessment system has so rapidly been reduced to a laughing stock which has lost all credibility and public confidence.

Perhaps the needs of schools and FE are quite different. If so, let us admit it. If the marriage is not working between the SEB and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, let us start divorce proceedings immediately for the good of everyone concerned.

Neal McGowan is headteacher of Gracemount High, Edinburgh. DIARY OF A BLACK WEEK AS THE SQA'S INVIGILATION WOES MOUNT

Aug 17 Headteachers' Association of Scotland calls on SQA to hand over Higher exam scripts for scrutiny of marking by schools.

Aug 17 Universities and Colleges Admissions Service says it is still awaiting full results for 2,800 Scottish applicants whom it urged "need not panic - the universities and colleges will be holding places open for them".

Aug 18 SQA chairman David Miller expresses the authority's regrets for the errors and announces outcome of initial validation check - more than 5,000 candidates who sat Higher and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies exams out of 60,000 have incomplete results and are to be notified next day, not of their final grades, but "that our investigations will shortly lead to results being confirmed or improved with all possible speed".

No grades would drop, he pledged.

Aug 18 UCAS says updated exam results for 1,512 Scottish HE appli-

cants would be passed on

to universities and colleges that day.

Aug 18 Tories join SNP calls for the first time urging Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, to resign because his promise that all errors would be corrected by August 17 had not been honoured.

Aug 18 Galbraith welcomes the fact that "the vast majority" of Higher and CSYS results are accurate. He announces that the independent inquiry, for which consultants are being invited to tender, would cover "all operational and administrative issues . . . from the point where exam papers or other assessment material leaves the hands of teachers, lecturers or exam markers, to receipt of final results by candidates, exam centres and UCAS.

"(Consultants) will be asked to investigate which parts of the process led to delays and incompleteness in the results, and to make recommendations for operational changes to avoid these being repeated next year."

Aug 19 Scottish Executive announces that universities will not suffer financial penalties if they exceed their intakes to accommodate late applicants.

Aug 20 SQA promises more than 2,000 pupils their situation would be clarified by Monday and that staff were "redoubling their efforts" to process results for the remaining 3,000.

Aug 21 UCAS announces that the number of HE applicants waiting for exam results has dropped to 566.

Latest UCAS figures show 6.6 per cent fewer accepted applications than last year to Scottish universities because of SQA problems, whereas UK-wide numbers are up by 0.5 per cent.

Aug 26 SQA should have begun checks on Standard grade and Intermediate results. 'No candidate who sits a national examination should be subjected to the blunders which have become apparent over the past few days'.

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