A welcome union of exams and modules

Welcome to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is three days old.

It has been born in unusual circumstances. A launch event has had to be postponed because of the election, although all of the parties would be happy to wet its head. The main innovation with which it will be associated - the Higher Still programme - does have political resonances, but not straightforwardly cross-party. The SQA's first exposure to the wider public will come when it presides over next term's Standard grade and Higher exams, although these have long ago been prepared by the Scottish Examination Board. The SQA will hope that there are no hiccups because almost certainly the responsibility should rest elsewhere.

Examination officers never rest content until papers are safely sat and marked. But the SQA can rely on the reputation of its predecessor and the fact that many SEB officials have transferred their expertise to the new body. It would be remiss not to recognise the achievements of the SEB over the past 33 years and those of the the Scottish Vocational Education Council, the SQA's other parent, since 1985.

On page four, two former chairmen make their assessment of the contribution of each, and give pointers to the SQA. With different traditions and primarily operating in different areas of education from headquarters 50 miles apart, they may look difficult to bring together. No doubt Ron Tuck, the SQA's chief executive, and his colleagues are most aware at present of the differences and the problems of harmonious amalgamation. But as is clear from the articles by Farquhar Macintosh and Peter Clarke, in contrast there is also complement.

The exam board has built its reputation on reliability and scrupulous attention to detail. As the numbers of candidates swelled, it never lost its capacity for treating them as individuals. Backed by teachers, pupils were able to turn to its appeals mechanism, which, almost uniquely among exam systems, allowed detailed consideration of circumstances to be set alongside mass marking. If the board's instinct was to be conservative, strenuously defending the need for external tests, it did so knowing the value of what had to be preserved and at the same time rising to the unprecedented challenge of providing, in the phrase of the Dunning era, certification for all.

It might not have been happy had it been given the 16-plus action plan to implement in the early eighties. Further education has to rise to unexpected challenges, often stemming from changes in employment patterns. So new-style modules and their certification had to be developed on the wing, first for colleges and then for schools as well. Mistakes, for example of over-elaboration, had to be corrected as they occurred rather than being ruled out by careful trial. Scotvec had to respond quickly, live with the criticisms levelled at all architects of change and turn novelty into credibility. Its legacy is that "getting your Scotvecs" is embedded in the employment world.

To represent the academic and vocational, to be cautious and risk-taking: the SQA will not lack pressures. The nature and timing of the post-16 changes the authority will have to implement may depend on the election result. How it is structuring itself to deal with them and its other responsibilities The TES Scotland will consider next week. Today, simple good wishes are appropriate.

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