Higher Still beyond the soundbites

Astrid Ritchie

In election years common sense too often receives a bloody nose at the hands of party political hyperbole and manifesto rhetoric. Any and every weapon will do in the battle for hearts and minds. However, half-truths and misleading inference can create undeserving casualties.

Now it is the turn of the Higher Still programme to experience the turbulence and buffeting of the long drag to polling day. The genuine fears, concerns and uncertainties of classroom teachers about reform of the upper curriculum have become grist for the mill of party propaganda. Looking for another stick to beat the Government with? Higher Still will do. Calls for another year's delay from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Educational Institute of Scotland? Electorally easy: they pander to the creation of an "only Labour cares" mindset.

Come to think of it, the EIS never actually supported Higher Still anyway, describing it as "flawed". Back in April 1994, the union produced a nine-page critique: fears that the Advanced Higher could transmogrify into a full-blown English A-level; fears that the extension of the Higher to 160 hours would diminish the number of subjects taken. Seems rather dated now.

But the school sector is not an island. Some will recall the introduction of 16-plus action plan and Standard grade in the eighties. There was little fuss from the further education sector (or the independent sector for that matter). For schools, however, the whole business took several years plus a major strike.

History repeats itself, for FE will be ready on time to run with Higher Still. Higher education, too, is actively involved, considering its admission policies. Higher Still has so far enjoyed generous resourcing, mirroring the Government's belief in its urgency. Up to December 1996 (excluding additional funding to Scotvec) Pounds 10million was spent.

Now further ample resource is in place for 1997 to carry forward this year's five implementation milestones. These bear reiterating: * Substantial support in the form of teaching and learning materials for schools and colleges.

* The national bank of assessment instruments, which will address concerns about workload - 150 pilot examples should be available by the end of this month with 1,500 envisaged.

* The most comprehensive exercise on staff development ever carried out in Scottish education - 200 seminars for 8,000 staff down to middle management level, 100 national trainers involved, training packs provided.

* Guidance.

* Marketing.

The message and the detail go out this year in targeted campaigns to wider groups: parents, employers and others.

It is time to think positive. Higher Still should emphatically not be seen as a big bang, an almighty swipe certain to bring schools to their knees. It can and should be possible to phase in, and schools should feel in control of the pace. There is no need to oblige schools to bring in access and intermediate courses in year one. These should be available but optional. Some schools might concentrate initially on converting the Highers they already offer, and not try at the start to be overambitious in new subject areas.

Compromise is possible: there can any way be no automatic cut-off of the supply of Highers on the due day - each Higher automatically carries forward its usual resit. Various other kinds and degrees of phasing are possible. For example, core skills and group awards might with advantage become available in year two and not compulsory until year three. Advanced Higher likewise.

Higher Still is in danger of damage by unrelated discontent, but the initiative is too important to be thrown to the political wolves. More reassurance and more information must lead to dispassionate planning, and a reawakened sense of urgency.

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Astrid Ritchie

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