Scottish exam chaos may disrupt 2001 admissions

Qualifications authority admits appeals could take until Christmas to clear, affecting next year's processing of university entrants
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Hundreds of students applying for élite university courses next year may have their applications disrupted by the Scottish exams chaos, admissions officials warned yesterday.

Hundreds of students applying for élite university courses next year may have their applications disrupted by the Scottish exams chaos, admissions officials warned yesterday.

Some may fail to meet early application deadlines for medical courses and Oxford and Cambridge entry if exam appeals are not completed on time, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said.

Staff at the troubled Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are working to complete more than 6,000 urgent appeals by Wednesday for students whose results in Scottish higher grade exams are crucial for gaining places at university next month. But the agency has warned the backlog of appeals, which could reach up to 120,000, may take until Christmas to clear.

Problems spilling over to next year's university entry would reignite anger over the results fiasco as MSPs prepare to launch their official inquiry into the SQA's handling of the affair next month.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said yesterday he had written to Bill Morton, interim chief executive of the SQA, to highlight problems with next year's applications. "I have pointed out there is a potential difficulty with those who need to be applying by an early date and need high grades to make them credible candidates. It might be that by the time they get the results, it is too late."

Mr Morton insisted the agency was on target to complete the first batch of urgent appeals, and said it would give priority to others needing results to meet applications deadlines.

The huge number of appeals is the result of administrative chaos that left 5,000 students with blank or incomplete Higher grade certificates. Later, 4,000 Standard grade exams, the equivalent of the English GCSE, were also found to be incorrect.

Universities have been forced to accept students on the strength of estimated grades and headteachers say false results may have led sixth-formers on to the wrong courses.

Sam Galbraith, the Scottish Minister for Education, has resisted repeated calls for his resignation and three official inquiries have been launched to find out the answer to one question: why did it happen?

The answer has its origins inone of the most ambitious educational reforms undertaken - vocational and academic education was brought under one framework. It was supposed to herald a revolution in opportunity. But it resulted in a series of management failings and problems within an exam board under political pressure to implement change at a breakneck pace.

As students started the academic year last August, the seeds of the crisis had already been sown. The SQA faced a mammoth task. Officials were drafting new assessments and tests, writing double the usualnumber of papers and recruiting an army of exam markers. Crucially the job included introducing a new computer system for collecting and collating the thousands of extra test scores, coursework marks and assessments at the very heart of the new exams. Software for the system was still being developed as term started.

In March when schools filed the first returns, heads realised something was wrong when SQA officials asked them to resend or amend the data.

Ann Hill, general secretary of the Scottish School Boards Association and an SQA board member, said: "The board was never told about this."

SQA staff realised data wasmissing from students' records but exam officers assumed they would roll in as the deadline of 30 June neared. In fact, much of the data had been lost. The SQA faced problems recruiting markers and names were missing from official registers of exam candidates. Some schools did not have enough exam papers. However, the exams in May ran smoothly.

By mid-June the deadline for compiling the final grades was approaching and executives were alarmed to find that although schools had filed data three or more times, it had not arrived. TheSQA contactedschools, by now on summer holidays, and asked for results to be sent yet again.

On 25 July SQA executives met Mr Galbraith. It was a crucial moment. They were ready to publish the results as planned but a percentage would probably be wrong. The SQA was offered the chance to delay the publication of results, with extra staff to help sort the situation out, but declined.

The extent of the problem became clearer: 1 per cent of entries, affecting 1,500 people, were incomplete. The grades only arrived at Ucas on 9 August - five days late and just a day before they were due to be sent to students. A number of results appeared to be missing.

The same day, the chief executive of the SQA, Ron Tuck,warned that up to 1,600 students might not get their full results. Mr Galbraith announced an immediate inquiry.

The following day thousands of students opened incomplete or unexpectedly low results.Within three days Mr Tuck had resigned and the decision was taken to recheck each of the 147,000 entries - a race to correct results before the scramble for university places started with the publication of A-levels in England a week later. But the corrected results did not arrive. All the SQA could do was verify that 5,000 students had incorrect grades. Some 2,800 university applicants were affected.

University admissions officers had little choice - they had to take students on the strength of their predicted grades. Today, the number of Scottish students accepted at university is 3 per cent up on last year. Ucas believes no student has been denied a place.