A re-elected Conservative government will accept that the Higher Still programme should be phased in. Although the Education Minister has been repeating his opposition to another year's postponement, Government sources are now privately speaking of phased introduction.
Raymond Robertson told directors of education last Friday that their concerns will be taken on board. Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, is examining the implications in a report which will go to the minister. John Travers, president of the Association of Directors of Education, told The TES Scotland there had been a "congenial exchange" of views and Mr Robertson had recognised the real concerns of the profession.
The official Government position is that after accepting a start to the programme in 1998 instead of 1997, another delay would be untenable. Mr Osler says that once principal teachers are involved in the staff development programme which starts in June some of their worries will disappear.
Mr Osler said that by August next year "some schools will be ready". He also sought to distance the Government from the notion that FE wants to press ahead while schools are putting on the brakes. Some colleges are better placed than others to get Higher Still under way, Mr Osler said, although the sector had a reputation for quickly adjusting to changes.
The directors relayed teachers' concerns about lack of resources and fears about assessment. As a briefing paper puts it, the increased emphasis on internal assessment could "lead to possible dilution of standards and increase in workload". Failure to address major concerns would "lead to a belief that the development programme has lost touch with the profession".
Mr Travers, who believes that phased introduction is now on the cards, said that priority had to be given to the 50 per cent of the post-16 school population for whom existing Highers are unsuitable.
The first phase should concentrate on the two new intermediate levels below Higher and on access courses for the lowest achievers. Existing Highers could run for another year, and the Advanced Higher was always due to come in in the second year.
But local government leaders are not convinced. Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "Phasing would cause confusion and increase the costs of the programme through running two parallel systems. We don't want to add to the complexity since you would end up with pupils taking an exam nobody understands."
At a meeting with Mr Robertson, Mrs Maginnis gave an assurance that given another year's delay "education authorities would commit staff development resources to ensure that the programme was ready from 1999".
During the Labour conference in Inverness last weekend, Helen Liddell, the party's education spokesman, told a fringe meeting that under Labour there would be "a year's delay but not indefinite postponement".
The Educational Institute of Scotland believes that a year's delay is now inevitable. Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said this week that the latest round of council spending cuts means "that a last nail has been driven in the coffin of Government plans for Higher Still".