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'We only have so many fingers and thumbs'

The exam system is set for three more years of uncertainty as the SQA struggles to get it right, reports Neil Munro

THE absence of management information such as comparable data for previous years was just one in a catalogue of weaknesses identified by Professor John Ward in an astonishingly frank appraisal of the organisation he has led for just four weeks.

In a breathless canter through several overheads rich with management-speak, Professor Ward's conclusion appeared to be that the SQA as presently constituted is virtually unmanageable.

He clearly agreed with last week's judgment from the parliamentary education committee when he said the problems stemmed from the forced merger of two bodies with totally different cultures, the introduction of new national qualifications which created a huge volume of additional data and new IT software which was delivered late.

Professor Ward, a former head of IBM in Scotland, said that he would never have attempted three such significant developments at the same time. Although there were "bright spots", he painted a less than encouraging prospect for next year's exams. The "challenges" he outlined are:

A management shortfall which at this late date has led the SQA to advertise for four key general managers n salaries of pound;50,000 to be responsible for e-business and IT; risk and information management; customer relations, human resources and communications; and finance and administration.

No management information or system.

Staff resilience at rock bottom.

Culture conflict arising from different backgrounds.

A "Dickensian" manual data handling process.

Reduced ability to respond to "sudden impacts".

Question marks over the "robustness" of the IT system.

The "hangover" from this year's exam diet.

The three-year time-scale for sorting out the most basic problems covers management, staff skills, data management, the split of operations between sites in Glasgow and Dalkeith, IT hardware, software system design and e-business.

Work on these "long-range solutions" has started or will soon. But the more tricky decisions such as where the organisation is to be located, upgrading and implementing a new IT system and moving to a full e-business operation will take up to three years.

Professor Ward identified the absence of an e-business strategy as a key weakness. "So long as we are running a manual system, if we get an impact our ability to respond will be limited," he said. "People only have so many fingers and thumbs."

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