More than three-quarters of local authorities have taken up an offer of last-ditch training from the Scottish Qualifications Authority designed to quell teachers' growing concerns around the new National courses, TESS can reveal.
Gill Stewart, director of qualifications development at the SQA, said that the training would be delivered wherever it was asked for and in any subject, in response to widespread criticism from teachers.
She added that the SQA was also in the process of preparing detailed question-and-answer sections on its website for every subject, again in direct response to teachers' concerns, and that the authority was further investigating whether extra training was needed on understanding how assessment had changed.
In response to the persistent concerns of unions and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), the SQA last month emailed all 32 local authorities - as well as independent schools and further education colleges - to offer training in subjects where there had been particular anxiety, including English, maths, physics and chemistry. So far 26 authorities have taken up the offer.
"In the main we will try to provide the support in the middle part of this month and in February, and we may have to go a bit into March, depending on the volumes," Dr Stewart said. She added that she was confident this still gave teachers enough time before National 5 exams started on 29 April.
These sessions will typically involve SQA subject specialists going out to local authorities for half a day to work directly with teachers, including "hands-on workshops" exploring different types of evidence submitted on behalf of students.
"From the first round of quality assurance, we have seen some evidence of teachers with the best of intentions generating too much evidence to make the standard - over-assessing," Dr Stewart said. "They're anxious and they want to make sure they've definitely got enough evidence for each of their kids."
The SQA held discussions with Education Scotland and the Scottish government last week to discuss whether teachers needed more training in the longer term in understanding the Nationals' fundamentally different approach to assessment.
"This is something where work needs to be done," Dr Stewart said. Some teachers appeared not to realise that "off-the-shelf assessments" were no longer available in the way they had been for other qualifications, she added.
The SQA director said that the exam body had been adding question-and- answer sections on specific subjects to its website since just before Christmas and that these would be updated monthly. "We intend to do one for every subject, but it's a work in progress," she added.
Dr Stewart admitted that implementing the Nationals was proving harder than expected, but insisted that the SQA was reacting promptly to concerns and that all students would "definitely" get the grades they deserved.
"Morale is good here," she said. "Like teachers, my staff were anxious about the first round of quality assurance, but I think having been through that and seen that schools are actually doing OK, there is nothing too worrying. It is all kind of as we would expect."
The big message, she added, was that: "(The) SQA is listening and we will work with our partners to provide more support for teachers, where appropriate".
Barring a small number of exceptions - perhaps where a small department had to contend with a teacher's long-term absence - schools should not delay implementing the new Higher as a way of compensating for this year's difficulties, she said. "In some subjects, it wouldn't work to go from National 5 to the old Higher - in something like biology it would be very difficult because the content is so different."
General secretary of the EIS teaching union Larry Flanagan commented: "It is encouraging that the SQA is listening to the concerns that teachers have raised, through the EIS, in relation to the new qualifications. We are continuing to hold a constructive dialogue with the SQA regarding enhanced support for schools, teachers and pupils."
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said: "It is reassuring that the SQA has reacted favourably to concerns. My main worry would be that it is too late to give the reassurance and confidence that teachers need."
NASUWT Scotland president Mike Corbett also welcomed the news, but said: "We would certainly want additional continuing professional development done as soon as possible. Beyond February, you're far too close to the exams to have an impact."