Secondary headteachers have warned that access to the new Scottish baccalaureate is likely to be a "postcode lottery". The new qualification in science and modern languages is due to start in schools in August.
Many schools would struggle to deliver it in the current climate, when budgets were being squeezed and staffing levels falling, said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.
There was a risk, he said, that only "privileged" schools - independents or those in leafy suburbs - would be able to take it forward due to the range of Advanced Highers and staff time required.
He said it remained uncertain if there would be any "added value" for students studying the baccalaureate, given that universities had yet to confirm whether it would influence admissions. Universities are not expected to attach a tariff rating to the baccalaureate until 2010.
"It's not clear universities will value it any more than the constituent parts," he said.
Heads echoed Mr Cunningham's concerns. One added that A Curriculum for Excellence was enough for teachers to contend with.
Another felt the baccalaureate was just a "re-hash" of the Scottish group award which failed to get off the ground. He also complained that information about the course had been slow to surface and questioned the academic rigour of the qualification since a student did not need straight As to get a distinction.
Mr Cunningham added: "I fear it will not be high up the list of priorities for many, if not most, heads. If that is the case, it will be very important that we do not exaggerate an already deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots. The postcode lottery of funding is bad enough at present."
Even independent schools, expected to be more sympathetic, had their reservations. The principal of George Watson's College in Edinburgh said it would not be "professional" to offer it.
"We still don't have the full details of the courses and how it works, and we won't get that for another month," said Gareth Edwards. "That's too short a time to give it our professional backing."
The school recently announced its decision to offer the International Baccalaureate, but the Scottish qualification was not comparable, he felt.
Mr Edwards added: "The International Baccalaureate represents a very sophisticated, holistic educational experience. The Scottish Baccalaureate, while I appreciate we have yet to see it in action, seems almost like the group award re-hashed."
The Government should have invested in initiatives aimed at younger pupils if it wanted to encourage interest in languages and science, he suggested.
According to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, however, approximately 100 schools have expressed an interest in the new baccalaureate.
Schools had all the information they needed to begin planning, argued Lena Gray, head of policy and new products. The interdisciplinary project was the only "new aspect", she pointed out, and schools and colleges had already begun to discuss how they would tackle this.
An assessment support package and further discussions would follow at the end of April, Ms Gray said, but the SQA would not be prescriptive. She added: "Our exemplars will help understand the standard and what is expected at that level and the different grades, but this is not about a list you select from."
Some heads are enthusiasts. But Tom McDonald at Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow, the biggest in Scotland which will run the modern languages baccalaureate, admitted that, without the help of Langside College to deliver the interdisciplinary project, it would not be possible.
"Having the college support is terrific," said Mr McDonald. "Without it, the challenge would be staff development. Staff have to be comfortable, prepared and trained with the necessary knowledge and expertise to deliver the project.
"Already, they have A Curriculum for Excellence to prepare for, literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing to think about, and interdisciplinary projects lower down the school. Although this would be something in principal I'm sure they'd be keen to engage with, it might be a staff development step too far."
Mr McDonald is keen to introduce the qualification, however, to "increase the level of challenge in S6".
Jim Scott, head of Perth High who sits on the SQA baccalaureate key partners group, believes that the award could pull A Curriculum for Excellence together for senior pupils, allowing them to see their learning in a "wider context".
Mr Scott stressed the importance of engaging with further and higher education and business to deliver the interdisciplinary project. However, he wanted more information about the project from SQA by June, "latest".
George Heriot's School in Edinburgh is also introducing the qualification. Cameron Wyllie, head of the senior school, pointed out that students would be studying for Advanced Highers anyway, so "what harm could it do?"
ALL ABOUT THE BAC
- Commitment to the Scottish Baccalaureate was part of the SNP election manifesto;
- June 2008: Education Secretary announced Scottish baccalaureates in science and languages to be introduced in August 2009, with first certification in August 2010;
- Baccalaureate consists of two Advanced Higher courses, one Higher course and an Advanced Higher interdisciplinary project unit;
- Key aims are to promote sciences and languages; to raise status of S6; to create a qualification valued by HE; to increase partnership working with business, colleges and universities; to allow pupils to apply learning;
- The baccalaureate will be awarded at pass or distinction.