Union jury still out on ministers' new dawn

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports from the annual congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

Delegates to the annual congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association left Peebles still ambivalent about how effectively the Scottish Executive is dealing with two of its central preoccupations - creating a new climate in schools and avoiding another exams crisis.

David Eaglesham, the union's general secretary, paid what he described as an "unprecedented" tribute to the Executive for the novel and proactive way it was handling negotiations with teachers. There was the prospect of a genuine dialogue for the first time in two decades.

Bill Fitzpatrick, its president, was less certain and concentrated in his speech on attacking "dinosaur" local authorities which were failing to enter into the spirit of the post-McCrone settlement. The congress itself passed a motion on similar lines.

On the exams front, the same uncertainties prevailed. Richard Goring, the union's education convener, said he believed there would not be a repeat of last year's disaster. "The Scottish Qualifications Authority has been more organised and thorough in its dealings with schools and data," Mr Goring said.

But Alan Taylor, a leading executive member, led the accusations that the SQA had failed to respond to teachers' concerns. Time for marking scripts was reduced from three weeks to two, and the SQA had rejected the "default model" recommended by the national liaison group which would limit unit assessment information passed to the SQA to pupils who had failed.

The authority had also ignored union opposition to the delay in issuing certificates in August.

Mr Goring did acknowledge that Higher Still continued to pose major problems for schools and the SQA. "There is clearly a tension between the theory of Higher Still and the requirements for certification by th SQA. It is we in the schools who are caught in the crossfire."

Higher Still also reflected the continuing workload problems faced by schools, Mr Goring said. He did not oppose change and innovation, he stressed, but reforms needed time to be effective. Higher Still was "not one initiative, it is several".

The conference backed a call for a moratorium on further initiatives until an audit established the likely impact of existing ones.

But the major preoccupation of delegates was school discipline. Peter Wright, an SSTA council member from West Lothian, said it was the single issue which all secondary teachers wanted the union to address.

Mr Wright called for backing for teachers who refused to teach pupils they believe should be excluded, if the ministerial task group on discipline does not produce the changes they want by October. The conference stopped short of such a move but did demand that the Executive ensure there was "sufficient alternative and appropriate provision" so disruptive pupils can be removed from mainstream classes.

The issues were fully aired in the presence of Jack McConnell, Education Minister, who was told by Bob McGarill, a council member from Glasgow, that the problem was the worst he had known it in his 12 years as an assistant head.

Margaret Smith, Fife, blamed "the politically driven policy on social inclusion which is causing chaos in our schools which are overwhelmed by having to find alternatives to exclusion". She cited sexual harassment of female teachers, assaults and malicious damage to teachers' property.

Mr McConnell said he hoped the task group, which he chairs, could come up with solutions to the immediate problems and set out a strategy for the longer term, particularly in tackling indiscipline by primary pupils so they were not out of control by the time they reached secondary school.

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