The Education Minister is adamant despite union threats over Higher Still. David Henderson reports
THE GOVERNMENT and the local authorities refuse to concede on the Higher Still timetable in the face of a union boycott, Education Minister Brian Wilson and councils' spokeswoman Elizabeth Maginnis both said last week.
But Mr Wilson did offer the unions an olive branch - two extra days' in-service training for secondary staff in the coming session. The offer came in a speech to a special seminar on the reforms, organised by the Scottish Office and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The minister said the suggestion originally came from the Educational Institute of Scotland.
Councils will be invited to apply to the Scottish Office to cut the school year to 193 days, in effect giving pupils two days more holidays. Teachers will be asked to use the two days to work on implemention of the reforms.
The minister repeated that pound;20 million has already been injected into the programme, and he promised more cash over the coming years. There had never been such a programme of investment and consultation in education, Mr Wilson said.
In a further concession, the minister promised to absorb the messages of an EIS survey on implementation, which is likely to be in his hands by the end of the month.
Mr Wilson acknowledged that "the level of anxiety among classroom teachers is higher, and detailed knowledge is lower, than among school managers". But he found the threat of militant action from recent union conferences "disappointing".
He said: "Higher Still is needed and it will be ready for implementation. Once teachers see what the actual plans for their school are, how much support they will receive from the centre and what resources they will receive locally, they will recognise the achievability of the programme."
Mr Wilson emphasised Higher Still would mean more passes, higher grades, more appropriate courses, better progression and improved employability.
The Minister repeated that there would be "no big bang" for Higher Still and that schools would be expected to phase in the programme over time - his advisers suggest three to five years. But He admitted schools would not be able to continue with existing Highers in 1999-2000.
"That is a clear baseline of change required in the system. As most Higher courses are substantially based on the content of existing qualifications, the main change will be in assessment. And in this area we are providing major support materials and guidance," Mr Wilson said.
Douglas Osler, head of the inspectorate, said later that as a first step schools would be expected to transfer to the new system what they already do.
Mr Wilson said teachers would not be clear on what they had to do until local authorities issued implementation details. Teachers would then be able to establish what courses they would run in the first year and at what levels, what emphasis to put on on core skills and the extent of necessary staff development.
Materials for the existing Highers would be sent out to schools between June 15 and August 31. Elizabeth Maginnis said: "Without these, the game is a bogey. Further delay in their production only adds to local authority and staff grievance that they are being asked to deliver a centralised, prescriptive scheme which has no local ownership."
She said that despite the cost of developing over 24 new courses, delay was no longer possible for the 60 per cent of pupils who failed existing Highers.
George MacBride, the EIS education convener, was pleased the minister was taking the concerns of the teaching profession seriously, including the request for additional staff development. However, there were still concerns about funding despite the minister's hint of extra cash.
"I am happy there's no big bang and schools are being allowed to implement other levels and new units as resources become available," Mr MacBride said.
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