Threat to bust boycott

Councils this week upped the ante on Higher Still just as the Educational Institute of Scotland was preparing to take one of its most crucial decisions on the endangered reform.

The chief education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has insisted that the Higher Still programme must start on schedule from next August - without phasing in the Higher level.

Ross Martin, education convener in West Lothian, told The TES Scotland: "We remain committed to the introduction of Higher Still from August. That means the new Higher must start in all subjects in all schools across the country, although we accept there will have to be phasing for the other levels of the programme."

Mr Martin's defiant message coincides with the meeting today (Friday) of the EIS executive council, which is expected to be split over whether the boycott overwhelmingly supported by a 60 per cent turnout of the membership should go ahead.

Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said: "It is time politicians, national and local, recognised that whether the new Highers start next year is down to those who have to make them work - the teachers,not the politicians. "

Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, made what she envisages as a last gasp attempt to win over the unions by agreeing to "dual running" of the new Higher and existing courses for a year. But Mrs Liddell has demanded "explicit proof that exceptional difficulties exist in a specific subject or in named schools".

Mr Martin has now issued a challenge to unions citing problems to "come up with specifics". But he has also indicated that Cosla will take the lead to meet remaining concerns over resources, workload and training. "Whatever it takes, we will rule nothing in or out. If individual schools are having problems with individual subjects," he said, "let's hear who they are.

"But we don't believe there are any, and our advisers are telling us that no barriers of a major nature exist against a start being made with the new Higher from next session."

Mrs Liddell has proffered another olive branch in the shape of an eight-member national liaison group to oversee the phasing arrangements, on which the two major unions would have three seats. She insists, however,that she would expect any boycott to be put on hold while the liaison group meets.

Mr Martin said the liaison group was "a clearing house to sort out particular difficulties". The authorities regard it as a vehicle for resolving outstanding issues so Higher Still can start on time, not an excuse for further delay.

"Our responsibility, as Cosla, is to ensure that this long-awaited reform goes ahead as quickly as possible and that there is no delay which shortchanges another cohort of pupils," Mr Martin said.

"We have all heard vague and apocryphal assertions that things are worse in this authority than they are in another. The unions must demonstrate, however, that there are specific local difficulties in specific local authorities, in which case Cosla is prepared to take up the issues with the councils concerned. But we want specifics.

"If it means Cosla taking more of a lead role, we will do it and we don't rule out advice, support and resources of any kind. The background is one of determination to proceed on schedule coupled with a willingness to be as helpful to teachers as possible."

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