The dawn of a new era promises plenty of drama

2nd May 2014 at 01:00

So they're finally here. Just before 9am on Tuesday, pupils around Scotland started filing into gym halls to unburden themselves of knowledge about geopolitics and parliamentary committees. The new era of National 5 exams had begun, with modern studies up first.

But according to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the new era is hardly different from the old one. Chief executive Janet Brown insists that although the qualifications have changed, this year's exams will be business as usual (see pages 12-14). She confidently predicts what she describes as the 14th successful diet in a row since the exams debacle of 2000.

Teaching unions are far more cagey. They have, by and large, done a sterling job of reflecting teachers' growing sense of unease in recent months. Their surveys of members formed the basis of public statements spelling out what was going wrong and what had to be done. As a result, the Scottish government announced pound;5 million of extra support in implementing the Nationals and the SQA organised additional training for teachers. Now the unions must keep a close eye on the success or otherwise of the new exams.

But one body that may find it difficult to concentrate on the progress of the Nationals is the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA), whose members must be scratching their heads at this week's bizarre turn of events: hours before the first National 5 exam, their brand-new general secretary was no longer in the job (see pages 7-8).

Sheila Mechan received some glowing reviews online after she used her maiden interview in TESS in February to savage the "cloth-eared" SQA ("What a refreshing change to have someone tell it like it is!" said one). In the same week, acting general secretary Alan McKenzie publicly praised her "ebullient personality" and "steely" approach towards negotiation.

But something went badly wrong after she started the job on 7 April. Twelve days later she had been suspended, and exactly three weeks after arriving she was gone. Even football manager Brian Clough, who in 1974 told his new Leeds United charges that they could throw away all their medals as they had won them by cheating, stayed in his job for 44 days.

The SSTA referred to an "immediate breakdown of a significant number of crucial working relationships". Ms Mechan has said that her biggest disappointment was finding herself in a union that failed to serve its members as well as it should. With legal action currently looming, it may be some time before the full story emerges.

The centrepiece of the SSTA calendar, the annual congress in Peebles, is only a week away. Sometimes at a teaching union conference you'll hear delegates complaining that the same old issues get raised year after year.

One thing is certain: SSTA members will have something different to talk about this time around.

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