One of Scotland's leading educational thinkers, whose advice is known to be valued by Education Secretary Michael Russell, has mounted a devastating critique of the Government's assessment proposals for the new curriculum.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, said the assessment plans were so inferior to the present arrangements that Mr Russell should "simply abandon the whole thing" (Curriculum for Excellence). He described the plans as "trite" and "flawed".
Successive people in senior rungs of education - albeit not Mr Russell - had told him privately that they had serious concerns about the reforms, but felt that CfE was now an "unstoppable juggernaut", Professor Paterson disclosed.
In an address to the annual conference of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) in Peebles last week, Professor Paterson argued that if, as he believed, the new National qualifications and literacy and numeracy tests lacked validity, then the entire new curriculum project was not feasible.
One of the key problems of the new National qualifications, he suggested, was that a pupil sitting a National 4 might not be ready to sit a Higher, but if he sat a National 5 in the same subject, he would be effectively repeating the year, just doing it in slightly more depth, which would be a highly demotivating experience.
Alan Taylor, the SSTA's representative on the National qualifications steering group and a member of the CfE ministerial stakeholders' group, said Professor Paterson had identified the "nightmare scenario" that his union had been trying, unsuccessfully, to highlight.
"Nationals 4 and 5 have to cover the same ground so they can be taught together, because they will have to be in many schools, especially small schools," Mr Taylor said. "But at the same time, they need to be at different levels of difficulty so that kids get different experiences over the two years. It is an absolute flaw in the system."
Professor Paterson also told the conference that assessment should not be so easy that everyone vaguely at the right level could pass, but not so difficult that it could not be a reliable measurement of "the outer limits of a student's understanding".
This required assessment to be based on the progressive structure of a discipline, delivered by subject specialist teachers.
"So far as the matching of assessment to students' levels of understanding is concerned, there are such serious concerns about the proposed new National qualifications as to render very dubious indeed the claims that they are an improvement on what we currently have or even that they are in any sense consistent with what CfE seems to need," said Professor Paterson.
The problem in practice with attempting to match tests to student ability was the century-long tendency to "over-presentation" for exams in Scotland. It was highly unlikely that this tendency would stop with the introduction of Nationals 4 and 5, he suggested.
Professor Paterson continued: "The situation may even be worse than in the current system insofar as the merging of Intermediates with Standard grades removes one element of flexibility in S5, whereas at present, a student who just scrapes a Credit in Standard grade might take an Intermediate 2 in S5 rather than go straight to a Higher; in the new system there will be nowhere to go after a National 5 course in S4, other than straight to Higher."
The tendency to over-presentation was likely to be compounded, however, by schools' insistence on not by-passing any safety net on offer. There would be almost no by-passing of National 5 courses by able students en route to Higher in S5, he predicted, and so "over-presentation paradoxically entails simultaneously under-presentation".
Moreover, the tendency for a safety net would be towards National 5, not National 4, because the National 4 courses were to be ungraded and internally assessed and hence have lower status than the National 5 courses.
"The tendency in this situation will be, therefore, to encourage presentation at the higher-status National 5 level, even of very borderline candidates," he said.
The new qualifications - so far as he could see from "the very limited information we have been granted" - were not only "inconsistent" with the goals of CfE to improve motivation and self-belief, but also "entirely inferior to what we now have".
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: "It is regrettable that those who have long opposed reform seem to be making a last-ditch effort to stop the essential and overdue modernisation of how we teach our young people.
"While Mr Russell has made it clear that he intends to continue to discuss details of implementation with teachers and to address their individual concerns, he has also been equally adamant that a refusal by Scottish educators to improve education in Scotland will not be accepted by the Government, nor by parents or pupils."
- The full text of Professor Paterson's address can be found on the right-hand side of this page in PDF format