Why didn't they tell us?

18th August 2000 at 01:00
THE two most senior figures in the crisis hit Scottish Qualifications Authority appear to have been kept as much in the dark as the Education Minister about the true extent of the chaos surrounding this year's flawed exam results. The authority denies "official" disciplinary action has been taken against two senior staff.

In the latest chapter of an astonishing saga, the SQA was preparing to be besieged today (Friday) by calls from pupils and schools following the expected completion of its checks on this year's Standard grade and Higher results.

The prospect of jammed phone lines and further frustration for pupils and schools will only add to the opprobrium being heaped on the organisation.

David Miller, the authority's chairman, revealed that the number of exam certificates containing partial or wrong results could be as high as one in 20, which would affect more than 7,000 of the 147,000 candidates who sat the exams.

The SQA had been maintaining that only 1 per cent of certificates would be affected, which was the assurance that persuaded it and Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, not to delay issuing this year's certificates.

Mr Miller told The TES Scotland that more heads might roll at the SQA following the resignation of Ron Tuck, its chief executive. Mr Miller, a businessman, described the seemingly endless catalogue of blunders over inaccurate and missing exam results which has continued to unfold in the past week as "a regrettable managerial muddle".

This was the first admission that it was human error rather than "computer glitches" which had engulfed the agency.

The chairman admitted he was "absolutely astounded" when the scale of the problem began to emerge - "and so was Ron Tuck". The implication that they did not know what was going on, never mind Mr Galbraith, may be the minister's answer to critics who have been pressing for his resignation all week.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said there was now "a crisis of confidence in the system of unprecedented proportions".

The Headteachers' Association of Scotland is surveying its council members in the first instance to gauge the experience of schools but Donald Matheson, its president, said early indications were that the problems reported so far were only "the tip of the iceberg".

Mr Miller said it was inevitable that the crisis of confidence would lead to some SQA staff being "moved, disciplined or fired". But he said that the problem was confined to only one area of the organisation and stoutly defended the "integrity and professionalism" of the majority of SQA staff whom he admitted were exhausted and demoralised.

An SQA spokeswoman said talk of disciplinary action was "premature" and reports that two senior figures had been suspended were "rumour and speculation".

The TESS understands that David Elliot, head of the awards division, has been told to take extended leave. Jack Greig, head of operations with responsibility for "the secure conductof examinations", has been given early retirement.

Mr Miller said that he had not come under any political pressure to sack Mr Tuck, who fell on his sword last Friday. He had reached the conclusion himself that Mr Tuck, a former HM chief inspector regarded as the architect of the Higher Still reforms, was in "an untenable position". Ironically, it was partly the complexities surrounding the assessment requirements of his own creation which helped bring Mr Tuck down.

The SQA chairman strongly denied reports that Mr Tuck, aged 51, departed with a pound;100,000 golden handshake. "There has been absolutely no financial settlement, none whatever, though there may be one," he said, adding: "Ron Tuck is the most honourable of men."

Mr Miller acknowledged that the combination of the authority's new computer system and the first year of the new National Qualifications (as the Higher Still courses are now entitled), coupled with the fact that the technology had not been properly trialled, made the problems worse.

Assurances that the authority's IT would be compatible with systems in schools, more crucial than ever this year because of the huge increase in internal assessments at Higher level, also proved less than reliable.

Mr Miller said the authority was not blaming "computer glitches". He commented:

"The problems are in data entry and data management not in the computation. In other words, it's a case of incomplete data producing inaccurate results. If the data had been entered properly and managed, the IT system would have worked."

He cited one school which contacted the authority to say its home economics results were wrong and it was later discovered that marks for a project had not been included. The SQA, it emerged, had the information but it had not been entered.

Overall, the authority thought initially that only 400 course marks had gone astray but missing internal assessments turned out to have left 1,400 students with partial results, the revelation which proved to be the beginning of the SQA's nightmare.

The authority is now bracing itself for a deluge of appeals as schools and parents express their lack of confidence in pupils' results. An increase on last year's 47,627 appeals was expected in any case because of the greater number of Higher Still courses and assessments. Of those received in 1999, some 21,786 appeals were successful.

Universities and colleges have been reassured this week by the SQA that no candidates are likely to have their exam marks reduced and therefore the procedures for the admissions process can go ahead safely.

David Caldwell, director of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said applicants with Highers would not be disadvantaged by the fact that they were not being offered places before those with A-level passes announced yesterday (Thursday). Applications from England, Europe and the rest of the world are all down slightly on last year.

Leader, page 10

Marj Adams, page 11

The Sweeney, ScotlandPlus

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