Recently, I have been questioned in some detail on the new National qualifications by a member of staff at the EIS teaching union's headquarters, a casual acquaintance from my local hostelry, a cousin with a child in S4 and the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee. The thrust of the questions has been predicated on the immediate educational diet for 2014 and the need for reassurance that students will be able to succeed.
I believe they will, primarily because of the selfless and tireless work of Scotland's teachers to achieve this outcome, in spite of the many unnecessary obstacles that schools have had to overcome.
The EIS submission to the committee states that the workload associated with delivering the new qualifications is unsustainable; for that reason alone, a review of the process is required. However, of equal importance is the need to evaluate whether the objectives of the senior phase of education are being delivered in a meaningful way.
Curriculum for Excellence promised a reduction in the formal assessment burden, more time to facilitate deeper learning, a breadth across senior school and broadening out of achievement, progressive 15-18 pathways for students seeking to go down a vocational route and greater interdisciplinary learning. Are these aims being achieved?
This is a transitional year, of course, and many schools have focused on protecting the current S4 cohort. This has meant minimising change. If, however, we discover when the dust settles that we have simply replaced Standard Grade with National 4 and 5, we will have ended up with a poorer product.
All the evidence suggests that students being presented for National 4 and 5 this year are facing the type of assessment tsunami that led to a major review of Higher Still in the year after its full implementation. And the overkill of verification from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has added dramatically to the workload concerns of teachers.
SQA's failure to provide an adequate fallback from Higher to National 5 led to many schools deciding not to bypass lower-level qualifications through fear of students falling through the net. There has also been a failure to effectively communicate the changed nature of unit assessments (skills not content), to promote the combined unit assessment and to avoid punitive thresholds for focused skills.
We will need to take stock and adjust where required. If the S3 profile of achievement is not to be the basis of forward planning for the senior phase, what is? If students don't study over a two-year course of S4-S5, can we maintain breadth and still create additional time for teaching and learning? Where should we be in two years' time?
There are many school experiences out there and we need to interrogate them in the context of the key aims of CfE and to share lessons learned.
Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the EIS teaching union