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A rush to swing the stable door shut

What a shambles. As we predicted last week, East Renfrewshire's decision to postpone the new National 4 and 5 exams for a year, to 2015, blasted a hole through government policy.

How on earth could Education Scotland chief executive Bill Maxwell have allowed a whole authority to delay the new exams, when the Curriculum for Excellence management board was so explicit last year that only single departments - in extremis - would be granted that concession, not even a whole school? It's almost as if he didn't grasp the implications for everyone else. East Renfrewshire, of all authorities, does not need special privileges.

That die is cast, however, and it was up to the education secretary and Mr Maxwell to meet with the EIS yesterday and limit the damage. As TESS went to press, Larry Flanagan, the union's general secretary designate, was calling for the option of a year's delay to be extended to everyone. But government sources were telling us the cabinet secretary would stand firm: no extensions for any other authorities, and schools which feel they are not on track with the new curriculum must alert Education Scotland by June, so they can receive "additional support".

The bigger problem in the long term is the split appearing between schools following national guidance to create the general education in S1-3, designed to provide the richer, deeper learning that is central to CfE, and the growing band of diehards who are telling parents they will offer subject choices at the end of S2, for a two-year run up to exams in S4, and a greater number of subjects. They too will be "supported out of that position", said a spokesman for Education Scotland, rather sinisterly.

What all this exposes, though, are the contradictions that are inherent in the government's philosophy of curriculum flexibility and devolution of power to headteachers.

Even former HMI Belinda Greer, now head of education at Stirling and Clackmannanshire, says she might permit individual heads to operate outside CfE if exam results, inclusion, and achievement were at acceptable levels, though she doubts they would be. That could be symptomatic of the new flexibility education authorities feel they have to adopt.

This week's News Focus investigates two early models of shared services in Stirling and Clackmannanshire, and in East and Midlothian, which demonstrate how education departments could operate in councils that are looking to survive national budget cuts of 12.5 per cent, while maintaining "frontline" services.

The future of Scotland's 32 education authorities remains to be decided after the May council elections. Whatever solution the government opts for, let's hope it can avoid the kind of confusion that surrounds the new curriculum and exams.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor of the year (business and professional).

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