David Henderson reports on what the Education Minister heard from the STUC at Aberdeen.
The "arrogance" of Her Majesty's Inspectors was largely to blame for last summer's exam fiasco and continuing difficulties with Higher Still, Sandy Fowler, president-elect of the Educational Institute of Scotland, last week told the STUC in Aberdeen.
The inspectors drove through the programme and refused to listen to the increasingly loud chorus of disapproval, Mr Fowler said.
With Jack McConnell, Education Minister, in attendance, Mr Fowler continued: "In that context, we wholeheartedly welcome the decision of the Scottish Executive to remove the powers of the HMI in relation to curricular change and the involvement of teaching staff in the decision-making processes on changes to be made both to Higher Still courses and to the Scottish Qualifications Authority."
Mr Fowler, principal teacher of history at Prestwick Academy, underlined widespread concern about the post-16 programme. Teachers, students and parents wanted to see substantial changes, particularly to assessment, while there were doubts about approaches to teaching and learning in certain subjects.
"Teachers remain committed to the principle but are very concerned about the complexity of the programme, the increased workload involved and the whole issue of summative internal assessment. There is also strong evidence that it has also been detrimental to the learning and teaching process and to the students themselves," Mr Fowler said.
"Many pupils and students are confused by the complex structure of Higher Still, are overwhlmed by the sheer volume of internal assessment and there is evidence that many of them suffer stress as a result."
The EIS was pressing for a substantial reduction in the number of internal assessments needed for each course, a resolution of the inconsistencies between different subjects and a fundamental review of the current balance between the final examination and unit assessments, including whether all candidates need to do summative unit assessments.
Media headlines suggesting a crisis a day at the SQA were damaging the credibility of the examination system. "As trade unionists, it is worth remembering the employees of the SQA, the vast majority of whom worked so hard to rectify last year's problems and remain shell-shocked and demoralised by what happened and by the continuing criticism of them in the media," he said.
Mike Kirby, Scottish convener of Unison, said it had been "a living nightmare" for many of the 800 staff who carried the can for last year's failure. A union survey had highlighted difficulties with data management, workload, information systems, question papers, marking structures and appointments, all of which had dented morale.
Bill Sweeney, of the Musicians' Union, blamed the structure of Higher Still for rising stress levels. "Teachers are weighed down by mind-boggling lots of assessment criteria that are choking out the process of education."
Last year one member found 40 mistakes in 35 pages of guidelines for drum performance. "Time for performance recitals was cut back to ludicrous levels and then within weeks was partially restored."