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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
'Serious failures' which damned exams
SQA staff
The SQA had adopted a "high risk strategy" last year
By BBC News Online Scotland's Steven Brocklehurst

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) received damning criticism from all sides in the wake of last year's exam chaos.

The exams body, which was set up in 1997 to consolidate Scotland's qualifications system, was found to have "serious failures" at board and management level.

The introduction of a new qualifications structure, commonly referred to as Higher Still, led to chaos when thousands of pupils were subject to delays and inaccuracies.

Higher Still was meant to make the exam system simpler, more efficient and easily understood by all involved.

Students check their results
Thousands of pupils received inaccurate results
The new structure changed existing arrangements for Highers and also set pupils on track to an advanced Higher qualification, which would contain a large coursework element.

A new results certificate was needed to record all the awards, units, courses and core skills, showing not just the 2000 results but also passes achieved in previous years.

And to pull it all together, a new computer system had to be implemented.

Inquiries by two Scottish Parliament committees heard that the SQA board had not undertaken a thorough risk assessment of the new computer software, the award processing system (APS).

Many witnesses told MSPs that the new system was untested and had been introduced with undue haste.

Final hurdles

The Scottish Parliament's Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee described the SQA as "fundamentally negligent".

And the MSPs on the committee said the design and implementation the new Higher Still system still remained open to question, raising concerns about the 2001 exams diet.

A new exam timetable meant pupils faced the final hurdles of their courses later than in previous years - but that left less time to mark the papers and collate the results.

The SQA had set out on a high-risk strategy without appearing to be aware of that fact.

The committee also said the board had failed to ensure there was enough proper management information, saying: "Essentially the SQA did not know it had a problem until the last minute."

Scottish Parliament committee
Two committees probed the crisis
Nor did the board question the management more thoroughly over assurances it was given about problems with managing data.

The board should have known that there were problems.

Many of the problems were experienced because the system for processing the results was delivered late and there was no time for it to be rigorously tested.

Computer equipment to process the first-ever run of the new qualifications system was delivered on the very day it was supposed to be used.

There was a massive backlog of data - and less than two months before the results should have been sent out, 65,000 exam scripts had still not been allocated to markers.

Considerable cost

The committee said vital areas of the SQA were under-staffed, under-resourced and subject to poor internal and external communications.

And it said the management and board were complacent and unwilling to admit these shortcomings until it was too late.

It said key figures in the SQA gambled on getting things right at considerable cost to their staff and to the detriment of parents, pupils and teachers.

When the gamble failed the consequences were much more damaging than would have been the case if management had been honest and straightforward from the beginning.

MSPs found it "quite astounding" that the finance, planning and general purposes committee of the SQA only met three times a year, and met only once between November 1999 and August 2000.
Pupils sitting exams
The SQA's gamble affected those who sat exams

The report also said that giving large amounts of unprocessed data to an operations unit that had been downgraded proved to be a significant cause of the shambles.

However, the MSPs did praise the staff in the SQA's operations unit who made superhuman efforts to try to complete tasks they had been given.

A report by business consultants Deloitte and Touche said that while "data handling issues" had been a "critical flaw", it would be wrong to conclude this was the only deficiency.

Although the events of last year were extremely serious - given that almost 3% of candidates received inaccurate or incomplete certificates - the potential scenario was much worse.

If APS had been delivered just a few weeks later, then no Higher candidate in Scotland would have received any results.


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Last year's problems

Background:

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See also:

12 Aug 01 | Scotland
10 Aug 01 | Scotland
09 Aug 01 | UK Education
03 Aug 01 | Scotland
21 May 01 | UK Education
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