A lesson in examination board management

Problems
within the English examination system have been well-documented.
Jane
Lewis looks at the Scottish equivalent to see if
lessons can be learned

The deep-seated
management problems in the English examination system, highlighted so clearly
by the furore surrounding Edexcel, will no doubt give rise to much
soul-searching as to the best way ahead. But there may be some hope in the
example of Scotland, which has recently overcome an arguably far worse
situation.

Two
years ago, the Scottish examination system was in crisis. Its sole examination
board, the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Agency), which like its English peers
had been put under extreme pressure by the merging of academic and vocational
qualifications, was operating in such an haphazard manner that one summer some
16,000 results went astray, awry or did not arrive at all. A national scandal
ensued, forcing First Minister Henry McLeish to promise his own resignation if
the situation did not improve.

It
may or may not have been the willingness of the Scottish government authorities
to shoulder their fair share of the responsibility that did the trick. Either
way, within a year, the SQA had reformed itself quite dramatically – last year
it was able to announce a triumphant 98.8 per cent success rate in setting
exams, marking them, and dispatching results in a timely fashion.

Turnaround
at the Scottish
Qualifications Agency

The solution behind this rapid turnaround was
an £11m cash injection from the Scottish Executive and an entirely new, and
rigorously balanced, management team, whose individual members were specially
picked for their combined skills in industry, education and the civil service.
While the new chief executive was picked from a Scottish NHS Trust, and the
whole process was overseen by ex-IBM chairman John Ward, the input from those
with a background in education was also strong.

The really encouraging thing was how quickly
strong leadership put the disaster right. Within a year the whole system had
been overhauled. As one commentator remarks, this would have been considered
radical enough in a private organisation, but for a government agency ‘it was
revolutionary’. A swift assessment showed there was nothing intrinsically wrong
with SQA’s staff, but there was an urgent need for new structures and proper
motivation – in this, we can see direct parallels with Edexcel’s current
situation. The rapid deployment of internal reforms soon achieved the desired
result – relations with angry teachers improved and the board was able to put
together a much faster response to appeals and complaints. It solved its
recruitment problems by offering examiners a 50 per cent pay rise.

Difference in examination systems

There is, however, one key difference between
the Scottish and the English systems. The SQA is the sole examination body in
Scotland. In England, by contrast, a ‘market situation’ between three competing
boards still exists, and it is this that has partially fuelled the overtly
commercial stance that many commentators blame for the collapse of the system.

According to Andy Westwood, head of policy
research at the Industrial Society, the creation of a sole examination body was
once mooted as the way forward in England too – the 1996 formation of the three
‘block-busting awarding authorities, Edexcel, OCR and AQA, was seen as ‘a
staging post’ to a position in which just one would eventually be selected. The
intense rivalry between the three separate boards to establish themselves in
pole position may well have contributed to the problems they now face.

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