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DUMB & DUMBER; Education boss Jack steps in to save SQA's skin after cock-up number 2.

Byline: IAN DOW

EXAM bosses' latest blunder left Education Minister Jack McConell raging yesterday.

McConnell started the day proudly announcing that the Highers pass rate was up 7.1 percentage points from 65.3 per cent last year to 72.4 per cent this year.

But just hours later, the former maths teacher had to admit the sums were wrong.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority had failed to take into account errors which had been corrected and appeals during last year's chaos.

These boosted the actual figure to 71.1 per cent, making this year's improvement only 1.3 percentage points.

Publicly, the minister shrugged off the highly embarrassing mistake, but privately he was raging that the SQA should make such a basic gaffe.

It cast a cloud over the Executive's relief that the fiasco of last year had been avoided and most exam results appeared to have reached candidates.

A source close to Mr McConnell said: "Can you imagine how he felt when he discovered he had been publicly discussing something that was wrong? He was incandescent.

"The whole problem last year was because of inaccurate data.

"Jack and his team have spent months making sure that this year's data is accurate. But, at the last minute, somebody at the SQA then makes a mess of calculating a headline figure. It's incredible."

When McConnell was quizzed about the latest SQA gaffe, he described the mistake as "minor".

He added that it did not affect the exam results delivered to thousands of pupils across Scotland.

The Minister said: "They made a mistake and I am pleased they have corrected it. We should be celebrating the success of young people and their teachers.

"They worked very hard over the last year through difficult circumstances and I want to make sure that their success is rewarded and recognised.

"We can move on and make sure these exams work year after year."

An SQA spokesman said: "The 2000 figure was depressed due to missing and incorrect results.

"Comparing figures generated by the SQA on August 14 2000 with the figures available on August 14 this year presents a misleading picture due to the problems we had last year with inaccurate and incomplete data.

"We apologise for the inconvenience caused."

McConnell described this year's pass rate as very good, adding: "The new system is working and it is very good this year that we don't have an administrative problem that takes away from that."

He said the vast majority of the 135,000 results were delivered accurately and on time and added: "I accept that there might be one or two hiccups with results being delayed either by the postal system or because they are being checked.

"But if a student's results didn't arrive on Tuesday morning, they can check with their school which has the full set of results."

SQA chief executive Bill Morton spent time yesterday phoning students to see if they had received results.

He said: "I wanted to take my own soundings. The focus for our activities is the candidates themselves and I wanted to make sure that we were delivering accurate results on time. I am reassured that SQA appears to have performed to a high standard and I will continue to ensure this.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the country's largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, played down the significance of the SQA error.

He said: "It's regrettable but the important thing for us is that the majority of candidates have received accurate certificates on time."

But he said permanent changes were needed to make sure that there is no repeat of last year's crisis. He said: "The success of 2001 has come at a cost - pounds 11 million and a lot of hours of work.

"We don't think that level of input can be sustained in the years ahead.

"We are now anxious for the national qualifications task group to reduce the complexity of assessment."

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities praised everyone involved in the exams process. Education spokeswoman Helen Law said: "I am pleased the overwhelming majority have received the correct results.

"This is in no small part due to tireless efforts by management teams in councils, teachers and administration staff. The fact that over 130,000 pupils have received certificates must be applauded."

But the SNP attacked the SQA, with shadow education minister Mike Russell saying the mix-up had made "a near farce" of the results.

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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 15, 2001
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