After winning backing for a boycott of Higher Still, left-wing delegates sought a second boycott of developments in 5-14 environmental studies. A tied vote of 146-146 was settled after Mr McCalman vetoed action. It was the first time in 15 years the president, who chairs the conference, had to rule on such a critical motion.
A further call for action on cuts and funding was narrowly defeated by 155-148 votes.
In the event, union leaders were left to organise one key ballot of their membership on "an immediate and complete boycott of the whole Higher Still programme". Delegates threw out by 195-131 a tactical motion from the executive which called for action only after talks on assessment, resources and workload.
A ballot is likely to take place in late September or early October. The result could hinge on the quality and quantity of Higher Still course materials which are due to come on stream over the summer. As it stands, union leaders have been left with no room for further negotiation with ministers and the Higher Still development unit. If the ballot carries, members will also be expected to withdraw from in-school planning.
Bill Ramsay, South Lanarkshire, who proposed the boycott, said there had been only slight improvements in Higher Still over the past year. "It is our duty to give members a clear signal," he said. The Scottish Office would have to come up with proper resourcing and give teachers a further year to put the reforms in place.
The reforms have already been postponed twice and are due to begin in August next year, but John Dennis, Dumfries and Galloway, said Higher Still would be "a mess" if it was implemented on top of successive cuts in staffing.
Glenise Borthwick, association secretary in West Dunbarton, in a significant contribution, said schools were being asked to implement Higher Still not with five loaves and two fishes but with "a bap and a fish finger". Staff were under stress and did not have enough time and training.
"Higher Still is like sex without a condom. The new Higher is unprotected education. You could end up with something really nasty that is not too easy to get rid of," she said.
Graham Dane, Edinburgh, said: "If you want peace, prepare for war." Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, had been badly advised by his inspectors about schools' state of readiness. The boycott was about delaying Higher Still, buying time for teachers and giving negotiators more muscle to wring concessions out of the Government.
George MacBride, education convener and leading negotiator on Higher Still, replied it would be "an abrogation of trade union responsibilities" to walk away from talks about improving the reforms. Negotiations had brought substantial changes, particularly on core skills, IT, group awards, assessment outcomes and teaching units.
"We have to be in there in September in discussions with headteachers and local authorities about timetables and structures and the best way to develop higher level teaching, not walking away," Mr MacBride said.Angus McCormack, Western Isles, said a boycott would "send the signal we are anti Higher Still but we are not".
But Charlie McKinnon, Glasgow insisted he had never come across such "anger and bitterness". Peter Dickson, East Dunbartonshire, said no in-service had been provided for unpromoted staff this session in his area.
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