MINISTERS have robustly dismissed union demands for a further year's delay in introducing Higher Still English courses. They are also refusing to buckle on the principle of internal assessment, despite mounting concerns about the demands on teachers and fears that standards could be at risk.
Their emphatic stance is certain to spark renewed calls for action by secondary teachers at their union conferences in the spring. Graham Dane, left-wing challenger for the vice-presidency of the Educational Institute of Scotland, called this week for further delays in several subjects and "a drastic pruning of the assessment requirements".
But ministers insist there will be no more backsliding on the timetable for English courses. All secondaries will be told to start next session. The positive evidence from schools already working on the new English courses counters any union negativity, the Scottish Executive says.
Teachers themselves are split on internal assessment, according to an EIS survey of English and 14 other subjects. A union source said: "The salient fact is that there is not a majority for getting rid of internal assessment. Only a minority of teachers are in favour of scrapping internal assessment and that includes English teachers. The bulk of teachers of all subjects support a degree of internal assessment. It's a workload issue rather than an educational issue."
The union's executive council will reconsider its position on internal assessment next month after failing to agree at its previous meeting. Last year's annual conference cntroversially backed a call for its abandonment in Higher Still courses.
Meanwhile, union leaders have been involved in detailed and "helpful" talks with the Scottish Qualifications Authority over ways to simplify assessment. The authority is said to be bending over backwards to accommodate teacher anxieties. David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said it was too early to say what would emerge from its annual conference but added: "There are still great concerns among members and the issues of assessment and workload are major areas. There are still problems with non-delivery of materials and some being unsuitable."
Local authority concerns about the effects of Higher Still assessment are underlined by a survey in North Lanarkshire. Michael Doig, head of Cumbernauld High, and local president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said:
"I do not think anyone would wish to deny there are real difficulties. It's the volume of assessment, combined with the fact that it's new. We're getting bogged down in it all."
Mr Dane, an Edinburgh secondary teacher, makes similar points about the burdens on candidates who sit several tests in every subject before being allowed to take the final exams. In a letter in this week's TES Scotland (page two), he writes: "Much class time now involves teaching to the test and repeating failed tests."
North Lanarkshire also notes: "Teaching staff are learning to coach for the test and only retest if they are sure of a positive outcome. There is a significant fear that the demands of retesting could mean fragmentation of teaching and learning."