SCHOOLS and colleges are poised for a head-to-head clash over Higher Still assessment that threatens the brittle but unified post-16 system, now bedding down in its third year. Ministers may exploit the division to argue for only minimum change after the success of this year's exams.
The looming confrontation has already surfaced in national talks over reform of National Qualifications but is almost certain to ignite as teachers and lecturers begin detailed analysis of Scottish Executive plans to "streamline" assessment.
Papers will be sent out before the executive council of the Educational Institute of Scotland meets on September 28 to decide on a boycott of "summative internal assessment".
The union this week gave its first indication of tentative support for the Executive with Ronnie Smith, its general secretary, appearing to back the package of measures designed to improve courses and assessment, outlined in last week's TES Scotland.
Mr Smith said the package "represents considerable progress towards the EIS goal of substantially reducing workload burdens associated with Higher Still and ending compulsory summative internal assessment". Key EIS leaders, including George MacBride, the union's education convener, were involved in drafting the proposals.
Mr Smith urged all members to consider how workload burdens could be reduced in their own subjects and to send their views to the Executive. He also appears to back the two-option plan to reduce assessment, known as options A and B. "I am confident that the (National Qualifications Steering Group) which has been taking forward discussions about the future of Higher Still has now identified a way forward," he states.
But deep splits between school and FE members in the union could be exacerbated by the Executive's imminent consultative paper (see panel). Mr Smith believes if both options were accepted, the majority of students would no longer be required to pass internal assessments, thereby reducing burdens.
There are fears, however, that neither option will prove acceptable or workable and that the Scottish Qualifications Authority may eventually rule out substantial change. Ministers may not be unhappy.
Under a standstill regime, with only fine-tuning of courses and assessment, the unique hybrid structure of Higher Still that teachers are now becoming more familiar with and which they admit is serving pupils better could be retained. Ministers may try to buy time to allow subject-by-subject reforms to simplify procedures and convince teachers not to water down the key principles.
Some also believe any changes this year and next will be insufficient to tackle the burdens on high-performing pupils in S5 who are still left with effectively a two-term dash to the external, gold-standard exam. Students would still be doing internal unit tests, although they might be scaled down slightly, it is suggested.
Colleges will also fight to retain the present system largely intact and believe schools need more time to accept the rigours of unitised courses and internal assessment. They are likely to reject both options.
* Option A
Course awards would be made on the final exam and students would not need to have internal assessments for all units in each course. They would be an option for some, although schools and colleges would continue to assess internally as students go through the course. Unit reassessments would be eliminated.
A counter-argument is that many students benefit from continuous internal assessment and it may be harder to motivate them if unit tests are played down. Some students may also want to take unit tests in case they fail the final exam.
* Option B
Students would receive an ungraded course award if they passed all the units but did not want to sit the final exam, which would be optional. But this is said to create the danger of a second-class status qualification. There would be no reduction in workload for teachers.
System must stay, page 23