THE LEADER of the Higher Still programme vigorously refuted suggestions that it made a major contribution to this year's exam results crisis, despite MSPs' determined efforts to link the two.
During the latest parliamentary grilling, Mary Pirie, chief officer of the Higher Still Development Unit, told Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's former education spokesman, that Higher Still was not "an outstandingly contributory factor". She said there was no added burden of external assessment, the IT systems were simple to handle and school managers had said they could live with the timetable for implementation.
But Ms Pirie told of her "great disappointment that the events of the summer did cast a shadow".
She also challenged claims that the reformers had failed to act on schools' warnings. She and Tony Keeley, her depute, catalogued a series of rapid responses when they gave evidence on Monday to the Parliament's education committee.
She gave no quarter to any of the Higher Still critics, nor did she attempt to shift the blame to the Scottish Qualifications Authority or the inspectorate, despite encouragement from the committee to do so. Her evidence was closely followed by Philip Banks, HM chief inspector with responsibility for post-14 education.
Ms Pirie strongly denied suggestions from Ian Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat MSP and a former principal teacher of English, that the new courses were in no fit state to begin last session. He pointed out that, in a letter to education authorities last November, Ms Pirie was still trying to allay concerns over unit assessments of courses which had begun in June.
But Ms Pirie denied the changes had been rushed. The Howie report on the upper secondary school had been followed by consultations which led to the announcement of Higher Still in 1994. There was then a four-year period of consultation and staff development, two postponements of its introduction, phasing in the changes up to 2004 and further phasing of the English and Communication courses. "A total of 10 years doesn't seem to be over-hasty," Ms Pirie said.
Consultation with school staff had been extensive. The HSDU held meetings twice a year, which involved up to 12,000 members of the professio, she said.
Mr Jenkins pressed his claim, however, that the need to continue with changes and offer reassurances after the new courses had begun suggested the launch had been too early, was overly-reliant on assessment and had become too bureaucratic, "all of which impacted on the SQA".
Ms Pirie retorted that schools appreciated the ongoing help from the HSDU. Her November letter, for example, was intended to assist schools in managing assessment, after which it fell substantially. She acknowledged later that feedback from schools pointed to the need for assessment to be made more manageable and for more support materials.
Mr Keeley said they were already taking action to meet criticisms, for example that pupils were facing too many assessments at the same time. Some schools were managing this successfully so the HSDU is to provide examples of this good practice to all schools (among these are the spreading of unit assessments over periods of a fortnight so no pupil would have more than one exam on one day).
Ms Pirie also insisted they acted on concerns such as problems with candidate registration which the Unit had picked up last autumn, for example inviting the SQA's directors to the Higher Still meetings with school managers last October and November. Representations on individual subjects were passed on to the SQA's qualifications managers.
Asked by Cathy Peattie, Labour MSP, if she acknowledged there is a perception that Higher Still had been damaged by the crisis, Ms Pirie replied: "We're about to find out." Another round of seminars was about to get under way. A LIST TOO LONG FOR MSPs
THE main moment of bemusement for MSPs during Ms Pirie's evidence came when she was asked to reel off the various bodies involved in implementing Higher Still.
She explained that the HSDU was a temporary organisation which would finish its business in June 2001.
It was responsible to Learning and Teaching Scotland (formerly the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum). The Unit itself was direcly responsible to an advisory group.
It had to co-operate with schools, education authorities and the inspectorate: HMI chaired the Higher Still implementation group and the liaison group of all the major interests.
"It is not clear who is responsible at any given time," said Ian Jenkins, MSP.