AN overwhelming majority of delegates at last weekend's Educational Institute of Scotland conference in Perth disregarded advice from union leaders and backed a boycott of "summative internal assessment". They want it removed from Higher Still courses in time for next session.
But Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, was quick to place the boycott call within the union's overall strategy for negotiating improvements to the new national qualifications. "It's a means to an end, not an end in itself," Mr Smith said after the vote.
Later, Jack McConnell, Education Minister, launched a scathing attack on delegates, labelling them "unprofessional", the first time he has broken from his consensual, teacher-friendly approach during his ministerial reign at education.
Mr Smith said he hoped Mr McConnell would meet him to consider further changes to assessment. "We would expect him to put in place arrangements for the coming session which meet our objectives for a radical adjustment to current requirements for internal assessment," he said.
Any developments would be reported to the union's executive council before further decisions were taken on a ballot of 24,000 members in the secondary and further education sections. First unit assessments would not take place before October, which offered "a window of opportunity", Mr Smith stressed.
George MacBride, education convener, supports the moves agreed last week by the National Qualifications Steering Group (see below), of which he is a member. It would be relatively easy, Mr MacBride admitted, to identify knowledge and skills that were assessed internally and externally and eliminate one level. Equally, it was possible to go through courses to look at unnecessary complexities.
In her presidential address, Margaret Nicol, a fellow steering group member, stressed that the union had made substantial progress, although it could offer no immediate reduction in internal assessment for the start of the new session. However, the majority of school students would not be forced into unit assessments under the two options proposed by the group. But this would take at least until nex year.
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FOR A BOYCOTT
* Bob Fotheringham, Glasgow, who proposed the left-wing boycott call, said it was a protest against "bureaucratic summative internal assessment", which was a workload issue for staff and pupils. He described it as a "lever" to shift the Executive.
Steering group proposals were no more than a "mismash" and union leaders were part of the problem. If the EIS had implemented its boycott two years ago, it would have avoided the difficulties of Higher Still.
* Hugh Donnelly, Glasgow, said Jack McConnell had acknowledged internal assessment had been a disaster, but that merely strengthened the push for "root and branch reform of assessment arrangements and the immediate removal of internal assessment, now".
* Mary Matheson, Aberdeen, was "horrified" by her daughter's experience of doing her Highers. Students were on a "conveyer belt of NABs".
* Myra Armstrong, Edinburgh, said members had been promised no more than a consultation exercise and nothing to help this session.
* Larry Flanagan, Glasgow, said without the immediate removal of internal assessment's "intolerable burden", teachers would be left to carry on year after year.
* Jean Miller, Glasgow, spoke of "March-April madness" during unit assessments.
AGAINST A BOYCOTT
* George MacBride, Glasgow, said that a boycott cut across union principles on inclusion and was impractical.
Most seriously, it would damage access courses, which have no external assessment and cater for some of the most vulnerable young people and those with special educational needs.
It would also remove courses from schools and colleges where skills and processes could not be assessed externally.
Research showed external exams benefited candidates from better-off families while adult returners to FEwould be disadvantaged.
A boycott, Mr MacBride said, was impractical since it only involved teachers on Higher Still courses. There was no single time when they were all involved in unit assessments.
* David Drever, Orkney, said members were being "seduced" by the arguments for terminal external exams since "impoverished working-class" students were disadvantaged. A boycott would damage the concept of comprehensive education.