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Weathering the storms;Interview;Ron Tuck

Neil Munro talks to Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority whose annual conference takes place in Edinburgh today

The Scottish Qualifications Authority is anxious to avoid "snagging." These are the little local difficulties - and not so local - that are expected to crop up as Higher Still beds down.

The authority is setting up three "focus groups" representing schools, colleges and other centres offering Higher Still courses. They will include representatives of the unions, headteachers, principals and the education directorate as well as the SQA and the Scottish Office. The groups will collate feedback on any problems.

Ron Tuck says it is too early to pick the emerging issues, although it might be anticipated that the new assessment regime combining internal and external testing will cause concern for pupils' workload. "At least now we have a mechanism for monitoring these kind of issues," Mr Tuck says.

Looking back on Higher Still's turbulent year, he is well aware there are lessons to be learned and has already aired his reservations about the inadequacy of training and information for class teachers.

Mr Tuck also acknowledges that kicking off with the new Highers rather than the sub-Higher Intermediate I and II courses, which were more urgent in schools, was less than ideal.

But it was a consequence of early representations that Higher Still should not have the lengthy phasing in of Standard grades.This meant there could not be a year without Highers and hence the decision to introduce the new Highers first.

"It is hard to run a perfect development process, however, unless you give it a very long time in which case you face criticism for going too slow," Mr Tuck adds.

Higher Still remains the SQA's top priority - when it is not running its routine exam operations, revolutionising its technology and putting the finish touches to the merger of the two exam bodies.

Mr Tuck says this has been the most strenuous year staff can remember in the history of either of the two predecessor organisations. "Teachers will say that Higher Still represents a huge workload for them," he says. "It has also been a major workload for SQA staff." The 500 regular staff have been joined by an extra 20 to ease the strains.

The main preoccupation has been in developing the national assessment bank items to support the internal assessment of units and courses. To date 630,000 copies of the NAB packs have been issued, accounting for 25 million sheets of paper. Within a couple of years the bank will be built up to 5,000 test items to support an explosion from 34 courses to 100 as more vocational areas are added.

Higher Still is just one of the building blocks of the new Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, on which the authority is currently holding consultations. Aimed at unifying the vocational and academic systems, it puts Scotland in the select company of Australia and New Zealand which are attempting something similar.

Mr Tuck is an enthusiast for the framework. He believes it offers people the chance to take a much wider array of routes to qualifications. In one college, for example, students with top Standard grades, ambitious to work in the caring field, opted for Scottish Vocational Qualifications instead of Highers.

"But their options are not then closed down, as so often happens, and they can move outwards or upwards at a later stage," Mr Tuck says. "Training in the past has been a bit of a blind alley."

Although the SQA has had its internal preoccupations, it has not forgotten its users and providers. It has been shaking up the old subject panels of the Scottish Examination Board and the sector boards of the Scottish Vocational Education Council.

Up to 50 assessment panels and 19 advisory groups are being set up, aimed at combining the strengths of the old system by including teachers as well as employers and other users of SQA certificates.

Mr Tuck comments: "It's important for teachers to feel a sense of ownership of the decisions made by these groups, which tends to get lost when a major development programme is underway. But everything we do, from the design of exam papers to assessing and marking, is shaped by teachers."

Whatever expansion the SQA presides over, Mr Tuck's favourite theme is that it will not be at the expense of standards. The authority will continue to monitor these, which it can do because serendipidity rather than planning has provided it with 10 years of Standard grade and Higher scripts in its vaults (former HM chief inspector Eppie McClelland merely "suggested" to the former SEB that this would be a good idea).

The SQA is now starting to do the same for higher national certificates and diplomas. "We will then be in a position to establish consistency of standards," The authority has also developed a pound;400,000 system for processing its awards. It is programmed to handle everything from registering candidates to issuing the certificates.

"If it doesn't work from August 1," Mr Tuck observes, "there won't be any certificates."

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