Adrift on Higher Still;Opinion

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Union members have been bounced into a dog's breakfast by their own leaders, says Robert Naylor

THE TEACHER unions have not emerged from the Higher Still negotiations with much credit. Both the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association have neglected the real needs of members. It is only at this late stage that staff in schools are being encouraged seriously to engage with the implications of phasing in the programme.

Communication between union officialdom and those expected to deliver the curriculum has been poor. This led in many cases to resentment and anger, particularly when the slant put on "news" from meetings went largely unchallenged.

Many of us were astonished that Helen Liddell's repeated claims of parent support for an August start went unchallenged, despite their dubious validity. Unchallenged too was the assertion that failure to implement Higher Still would damage the prospects of a generation of pupils. Surely such a crass analysis should have been met with vehement public condemnation.

Members should have the right to expect that their views are sought, heeded and argued forcibly. That is one of the reasons they join unions in the first place. It was because I believed that the EIS should more adequately represent the views of ordinary teachers that I was motivated to join my local executive.

Gradually, however, it became clear that even executive members were powerless to influence, or even be heard by, their "superiors" in the union. The local executive were largely committed, hardworking people of integrity, but there were too few of us, and we were frustrated by the lack of real consultation.

The Higher Still debacle has been the last straw for many, and some of my finest colleagues have reacted to the current situation with disgust.

It may seem that I have just confirmed many teachers' gut feeling that the unions don't do anything anyway and we may as well have nothing to do with them. On the contrary, I think this sad state of affairs arises because not enough good people come forward and stick their necks out.

Union reps are not the zealots sometimes portrayed in the press. They are generally committed professionals actively seeking just and workable solutions to the challenges presented to the education system by rapidly changing socio-economic conditions. But they have to be seen to have the backing of ordinary teachers.

It is not enough for teachers to tick their ballot papers and then sit back and wait for the goods to be delivered. We should all be asking questions and demanding answers at every stage, not waiting until new developments have turned into farce and then criticising the unions for having got us into this mess.

As it stands, Higher Still will now proceed in a piecemeal fashion. Some subjects will go ahead, others may delay for a year. Some subjects will proceed in some schools but not in others. Some departments may offer Higher Still at "Higher" level only, while others offer Intermediate 1 and 2 as well. As school-leavers prepare for college or university in the year 2000 they will do so with a more mixed bag of qualifications than ever before. Quite an outcome for a programme designated to marry together the disparate systems of the former Scottish Examination Board and Scotvec. A dog's breakfast indeed.

No doubt most of us will quietly get on with the job and try to make the unworkable work. Yet if more of us had involved ourselves in asking questions and demanding answers at an earlier stage, maybe we could have secured the preparation time necessary. Making Higher Still work through dogged hard work will be much harder than it was with the 5-14 programme and other developments. The goalposts have been moved a considerable distance for that section of the pupil cohort who have hitherto followed modular courses. For the first time in more than a decade they will be faced with a course-end exam which will assess not just what they are able to do on a particular day but also their retention of knowledge, facts and techniques and their ability to apply skills learnt many months previously.

In these days of league tables, value-added factors and target-setting we are about to discover, too late, how difficult it is to attain meaningful academic levels of performance when the instrument of measurement moves beyond the gift of the hard-pressed teacher.

Is it possible that we might learn from our mistakes in time to avert the next crisis? For another hurdle looms, in the shape of the Millennium Review. So far, we are told that negotiations are at an early stage. But already there are ominous "leaks" from the media about changing conditions of service, locally negotiated pay and suchlike.

If the unions are to retain any credibility with their members I suggest that they urgently canvass their views before proceeding any further with discussions. As union members we have the duty to ourselves and our colleagues to demand such communication and consultation from our unions.

Robert Naylor is principal teacher of mathematics at Dunblane High School and an executive member of the Stirling local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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