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New Highers are on course, say councils

THE MAJORITY of secondary departments will be offering the new Higher from next session, according to a sample of education authorities surveyed by The TES Scotland. But only a handful of schools say they are able to go ahead with the eight subjects that face "major or significant change" at Higher level.

The subject-by-subject details will be considered next Wednesday by the national liaison group, set up in the deal struck between the unions and the Education Minister to oversee the introduction of Higher Still.

The 32 authorities had until last Friday to submit plans to the Scottish Office following local agreement with unions and secondary heads. Departments will be allowed to delay introduction by a year, if they can show "subject-specific" reasons such as new content or point to "special factors" such as staffing or resource difficulties.

As expected, the major problems are faced by English departments and the great majority of schools are almost certain to continue with the existing Higher next session. The other Higher courses seeking delay are accounting and finance, art and design, chemistry, home economics (fashion and textile technology), technological studies, computing and administration.

But even the "problem" subjects do not show a uniform pattern. In Highland, nine of 26 secondaries are happy to go ahead with the new Higher English course, while 17 are switching in art and design and 19 in chemistry.

In Edinburgh, 14 of 23 secondaries are changing over in computing and nine in art and design.

The implementation plans in Inverclyde show that, despite problems in a few subjects, there is "a very high degree of participation", Bernard McLeary, the director of education, says. South Ayrshire describes its position as "encouraging".

Neil McKechnie, education services manager in West Dunbartonshire, says that the prospects for embracing the changes are improved where principal teachers have been involved in devising course materials.

The returns at this stage represent a fluid picture, however, according to Ian Glen, curriculum services manager in Edinburgh, where three-quarters of subject departments are adapting to the new Higher. "A lot of departments say they are going ahead provided they get the time and the materials, while others who say they are unlikely to do so next session may find they are in a better position by the summer," Mr Glen said.

Despite the local agreement in Edinburgh, teachers remain concerned that the new courses could impose greater demands on non-teaching time, largely generated by changes in assessment.

Glen Taylor, education services manager in Dundee, believes schools could offer more subjects as support grows nationally and from the authority. "We are not browbeating anybody," Mr Taylor said. "We are pleased at this stage that we will be able to provide so many of the new courses."

John Fyfe, senior adviser in Highland, believes the picture may be better than the returns suggest. "The position is obscured by the question that was asked, which concentrated purely on the new Highers. In some subjects, however, the principal teacher might decide that Intermediate I and II courses are more appropriate for the pupils not the new Higher, but they are then shown as putting in a negative return."

Officials are now more optimistic that a consensus has finally been reached that will let Higher Still get off the ground. "The vast majority of the new Highers will go ahead unless there are problems in particular subject departments," Michael O'Neill, president of the Association of Directors of Education, said. "Subjects not affected by major change will also go ahead at Intermediate I and II levels."

Mr O'Neill is "cautiously optimistic", but others will share the view of Bob McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross, that Higher Still has finally proved that, even after years of development work, a centralised approach to curriculum change will fail.

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