THE emphatic 65-10 endorsement of an immediate ballot on a possible boycott of Higher Still by the Educational Institute of Scotland's executive council reveals the continuing gulf between the Government and unions.
A boycott effectively means a year's delay, the third postponement. But the union is anxious to keep the door open. Ronnie Smith, its general secretary, said the commitment to the reform of post-16 education was reiterated strongly in the course of the meeting.
"The ball is now clearly at the feet of the Government," Mr Smith said. "The executive council are unanimous that we must continue to meet with the Government to seek clarification and assurances which can meet the needs of schools and teachers."
The ballot will be held with a recommendation from the leadership to support a boycott and, given past EIS success in winning such votes, that means 22,000 secondary and 4,000 further education members are almost certain to give their backing.
This is despite the recent announcement of pound;24 million earmarked for the programme over the next four years. The Government and education authorities now hope that, while the ballot might authorise industrial action, a boycott will not be necessary.
There is an eight-week period for further negotiations and discussions before a boycott would take effect in mid-November. The next meeting of the EIS executive on November 20 will therefore be crucial, not least in deciding on the parameters for when any boycott should be called off.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, gave no indication of moving from her commitment to introducing Higher Still from next August, pointing out that this date had already been postponed twice. She expressed "disappointment" at the EIS move, rehearsed the additional funding, training and materials provided and said: "Teachers will be better supported than ever before."
Ross Martin, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "There is a difference between voting to take action and actually taking action. A lot of teachers will see this as putting down a marker to keep the pressure on the local authorities and the Government.
"That's fine. No one is more interested in keeping up the pressure than the local authorities. But I don't believe there is any stomach among teachers for industrial action. It would be a major mistake after the measures the Government has taken to meet teachers' concerns, and it certainly would not get the support of parents."
The move to postpone any ballot until November was led by Ian McCalman, the former EIS president. The recommendation for delay came from the union's finance and general purposes committee, which he chairs, but only by 11 votes to nine. It was intended to give time for further clarification to be sought from the Government.
Sonia Kordiak, secretary of the EIS's Midlothian association and an English teacher, moved for an immediate ballot which she said would cause less confusion among the membership and the wider public. There would still be eight weeks for negotiation with the Government, she pointed out.
Mr Smith said the union requires "absolute clarity" about how the additional pound;24 million was to be targeted. Its shopping list of demands also includes the possibility of phasing in the new Highers, limits on multi-level and bi-level teaching including class size maxima, adequate training for all teachers including supply cover for those involved in training, adequate support material, IT back-up and limits on the reassessment of students.
Some assurances have already been given at national level, but there is clearly a patchy picture between authorities and between subjects which influenced the executive council vote. The EIS demands will also mean recruiting additional teachers.
An offer to ensure a level playing field across the country came from Cosla. "I suspect the EIS is acting on more pessimistic reports from particular parts of the country," Mr Martin told The TES Scotland. "If there is anything we can do to improve the position to the union's satisfaction, we will be happy to do so."
Ms Kordiak said, however, that the ballot was bound to be influenced by the position of the least advanced authorities and subjects. "We are, after all, talking about a national exam which requires everyone to be at the same starting point."