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Higher Still continues to give its critics a target

There is still a lack of conviction in official efforts to persuade the teaching profession about the merits of Higher Still and its timetable. No one is touring the country in the way that Douglas Osler, now senior chief inspector, did when the 5-14 programme was launched. The chief inspector was willing to take on critics and try to convince them. True, Mary Pirie, chief development officer for Higher Still, seeks to reassure teachers about workload, but her statement (TESS, last week) that the reforms "will come creeping in" suggests caution rather than conviction.

Another batch of Higher Still documents is now reaching schools (see page five). There appears to be little attempt to promote them although they form a response to the extensive consultation exercise of last autumn. If they are assumed to be working documents, marking another stage on the development path, the Scottish Office may not think that their appearance needs heralding. Perhaps there is a hope that their messages, intended to be reassuring to teachers, will be better received if there is no hype.

But there is still a feeling that critics of Higher Still are being allowed free rein. They will be heard again at next week's conference of the Educational Institute of Scotland, as they were four weeks ago when the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association met.

Plans for assessment caused most concern last autumn. The latest version of the proposals specifically seeks to reduce the load on teachers and lecturers. Despite the introduction of assessable units as well as several levels of external examination, the development unit believes that there will be no increase on work necessary to prepare candidates. If, as the document tentatively suggests, prelims can be abolished there will be advantages for teachers as well as for pupils. Much emphasis is laid on teachers' experience with internal assessment in drawing up an estimate of candidates' likely performance.

But schools will need more than a booklet to convince them. The fact that pupils will have to pass units as well as courses to receive an award raises the importance of unit assessment. This will be seen as a continual test of teachers as well as of their classes.

The problems of marrying vocational and academic courses were highlighted by the controversy facing English and communication. The consultation document has been radically overhauled, with literature regaining lost ground. While teachers of English will welcome the reassertion of an "academic" emphasis, college lecturers in communication, rightly a key subject for many students, may fear that the ability to handle language is overlain by a need to dissect traditionally approved texts. There are still battles to be fought if English as a gateway to higher education is to appeal to a wide range of candidates from schools and colleges. The need to demonstrate facility in spoken English, already established at Standard grade, will also test teachers' ability to cope with change.

Meanwhile, the official message is that the overall amount of change was always meant to be limited and every effort is being made to reduce it further. Reassurance is all very well but it has to be accompanied by a restatement of the underlying case for reform.

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