The Scottish Office failed to issue details this week of new plans for compulsory testing in the first two years of secondary school. Education authorities had expected formal notice of last week's announcement by the Education Minister but more information will not be available "until the summer".
The controversial legislation, anticipated after the Secretary of State condemned the lack of testing as "unacceptable", was denounced this week as "shocking" by John Mitchell, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.
"There has been no consultation over this," Mr Mitchell said. "The listening Scottish Office seems to have stopped listening and we get announcements made at the Tory conference rather than through the usual consultative channels. "
The conference (page five) heard Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, mount his fiercest attack yet on the education authorities he clearly regards as obstructing a key area of Government policy. Mr Robertson complained loudly that in the first half of last year only 6 per cent of pupils were tested in maths in the first two years of secondary school, 6 per cent in reading and 4 per cent in writing. Legislation to set national targets for testing was under consideration, he added.
Although Mr Robertson is attempting to use testing to establish clear blue water between himself and his political opponents, his move follows concerns raised by the Inspectorate (page six) and in the Assessment of Achievement Programme about the performance of pupils from the final year of primary school to the second year of secondary. The failure of secondary schools to embrace the 5-14 programme has been another running sore, not least among some primary heads.
But Mr Mitchell warned that "something will have to go" if schools are forced to implement testing. "Our view is that the priority has to lie with Higher Still, and that effort could now be diluted if we have to turn our attention to testing in S1 and S2 which many of us believe to be of doubtful validity. "
Bob McKay, president of the Association of Directors of Education, also warned that the positive aspects of the 5-14 programme itself could be jeopardised by "single sound-bites on the single issue of testing." He said the 5-14 curricular strategy, recording, assessment and reporting were of more substantial importance to parents, pupils and teachers.
Mr McKay feared legislation on testing would provoke confrontation "and my experience of confrontation is that nobody wins". Although teachers and parents may be tempted into rebellion by memories of a successful boycott of the first round of testing in primary schools, similar action in secondary schools is more doubtful.
The Education (Scotland) Bill currently going through Parliament could be a vehicle for Mr Robertson. But the minister's problem is the impending general election, a point seized on by Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokeswoman, at the Scottish Grand Committee in Dundee on Monday (page 10). "The only consolation is that Raymond Robertson will be out of Government before he can implement testing," Mrs Liddell said.
Elsewhere in his speech Mr Robertson appeared to pre-empt the outcome of the Inspectorate's inquiry into the merits of setting, streaming and mixed-ability teaching. The minister dismissed mixed-ability classes as "a missed opportunity" and "a strait-jacket upon learning" for the least and most able.
George Robertson, Shadow Scottish Secretary, said this week that Labour favoured setting in the first two years of secondary school. A poll commissioned by the Educational Institute of Scotland (page one) found that 31 per cent of parents support streaming.