The Scottish Executive is trying to head off a proposed Educational Institute of Scotland boycott of internal assessment by launching an open consultation on its proposals to substantially reduce the Higher Still burden on teachers and students.
A further extensive review of the troubled English and communication course is again under way.
Ministers first floated two possible solutions on internal assessment in June, just two days before the EIS's annual conference in Perth. That cut no ice with delegates who retained their hostility to the principles behind internal testing in Higher Still units and the workload involved.
Under option A, geared towards pupils going to university, the final exam would be enough to gain the course award while option B would allow students to gain a course award without a grade if they had completed the units, a move designed to pacify colleges. The structure of courses would not change.
This week the ministerial task group, led by Colin MacLean, the exams czar who has turned his attention to refining the National Qualifications, agreed to a three-month consultation involving teachers and lecturers. A paper next month will explain the background while a series of conferences will be organised in October. Ministers will take a final decision early in the new year and will hope further changes to courses and assessment will take the steam out of the internal testing boycott call.
It is clear significant reform to National Qualifications will have to await the 2002 session. In the short-term, the Scottish Qualifications Authority will focus on simplifying data transfer with schools and colleges, improving recruitment and training of markers, and simplifying assessment procedures in some subjects.
The default pass mechanism that would have cut by two-thirds the amount of assessment information on units transferred between centres and the SQA is again off the agenda for the time being. Evidence from the SQA shows that around 8,000 candidates would have had wrong information on their certificates this year if the system had gone ahead.
The further significant development this week is the appointment of Ken Cunningham, head of Hillhead High, Glasgow, and vice-president of the secondary headteachers' association, to chair a working group on English and communication, an issue that has so far split teachers and lecturers. Divisions remain about what should be in the course and how it should be taught.
Mr MacLean said: "They will look at existing evidence, take fresh evidence from interested parties and make recommendations by November. If it was easy, it would have been solved two years ago."
He does not rule out splitting the subject in two.
Mr MacLean also accepted that the one Higher Still model may not fit all subjects, a key to unlocking various subject wrangles. "In an ideal world every subject would have exactly the same structure of units and assessment but subjects are different," he said.
After two years of Higher Still, SQA subject teams will examine ways of improving courses and the mechanics of assessment to reduce burdens without making radical changes. Teams will also be able to report other longer-term problems.
FIVE KEY ISSUES TO RESOLVE
* Simplifying data transfer with schools and colleges. Will include a clear schedule for sending back details to the SQA, plus a clear statement of responsibilities of centres and the SQA. Candidates' names will appear not just reference numbers.
* Improving marker recruitment, deployment and support. Review of fees and training.
* Every subject, beginning with the largest such as English and communication and mathematics, to be reviewed.
* Tackling the burden of assessment, the nature of internal assessment and the nature of evidence required for appeals.
* Completing support for initial implementation of National Qualifications, work previously carried out by the Higher Still Development Unit.