Secondary heads this week threw a spanner into the Government's carefully crafted round of education announcements by calling for another year's delay in the introduction of the Higher Still reforms. The programme has already been postponed for a year from the original starting date this August.
The decision by the Headteachers' Association of Scotland has undermined the Scottish Office's charm offensive to sooth workload and funding fears, most recently at The TES Scotland conference on Higher Still in December, suggesting that there need be no "big bang" move to the reformed system in August 1998.
The association now joins the unions and councils, preoccupied with school budget cuts and the removal of the special in-service training grant for teachers from April, in demanding that the time-scale be put on hold. Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokesman, has also backed a cautious line in proposing a pilot year to test the new arrangements.
Ken Corsar in Glasgow and John Christie in Scottish Borders, directors of education in the largest and one of the smallest mainland education authorities, have added their voices to the chorus urging delay. Both are battling against particularly severe spending problems.
Heads warn in a letter to the Education Minister, the text of which is released today (Friday): "We now believe that a start date of 1998 is unrealistic and call for a further year's delay in the introduction of Higher Still. It also has to be recognised that, although additional funding is being made available for the development of Higher Still, much of its implementation will require to be met by individual schools at a time of substantial general cuts in staffing and resources within the local authority sector."
This distinction between development and implementation is a swipe at Scottish Office figures that show o14 million has been invested in the post-16 reforms to date. Both heads and unions say this will not help delivery of the changes in the classroom.
The heads have a six-point list of complaints. Course documentation is "far from finished", there are "inconsistencies of approach" between subjects, course materials require to be prepared, staff development demands are "considerable", multi-level teaching "remains a contentious issue", and major calls on resources such as guidance and technology "require to be resolved".
The HAS represents just over 400 secondary heads and deputes, but its views did not appear to be entirely shared by the senior managers of Roman Catholic secondaries who gathered in St Andrew's College to discuss Higher Still last Friday. Several said delaying much-needed reform would be worse than embracing the challenge.
Michael McGrath, headteacher of Our Lady's High in Cumbernauld, said he believed it would be an opportunity to improve post-16 religious education.
The Catholic sector was given notably firm encouragement by Cardinal Thomas Winning who spoke of his "growing sense of partnership" with the Scottish Office. Cardinal Winning, who has been experiencing a high-profile alienation from the Labour leadership over the issue of abortion, warmly endorsed the Higher Still programme for offering "coherence and relevance to post-16 pupils in the 90s".
The Scottish Office is also determined to press ahead, replacing its national strategy group next month with an implementation group to be chaired by Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector. A new staff development drive aimed at principal teachers and subject leaders will begin in June.