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Year's delay for Higher Still

Minister redeems manifesto pledge and rules out phased start to upper curriculum reforms

Labour will win fresh plaudits from the education community today by confirming that the start of the Higher Still reforms is to be delayed by another year to August 1999, the second postponement.

Brian Wilson the Education Minister, will use the platform provided by a conference in Glasgow organised by the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Equal Opportunities Commission to end speculation about the Government's intentions.

His decision is in line with unanimous calls from council leaders, directors of education, secondary headteachers and unions to give schools another year's breathing space. The move is also in line with a pledge in Labour's election manifesto to "allow an extra year" for implementation.

Mr Wilson is believed to have contemplated a more laissez-faire approach, allowing schools to proceed immediately with the new post-16 curriculum if they felt they were ready while others caught up at a later date.

But he concluded that this would cause too much confusion. Mr Wilson is also determined not to phase in the changes from next year and will make it clear that they are to be introduced as a single package.

This will be greeted with relief by many concerned at the prospect of what Bob McKay, past president of the Association of Directors of Education, described as a "seriously divisive" step if schools proceeded at different paces.

Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, was particularly hostile to phasing in the Higher Still programme. Mrs Maginnis told Cosla's education forum meeting in March that this "would cause confusion and increase costs through running two parallel systems".

Directors of education had previously been more serene in contemplating a phased introduction. But Mr McKay, the director in Perth and Kinross, told last Friday's forum that a year's delay was their preferred option. If they had been forced to make a start in August next year, their view was that priority should be given to the pre-Higher Intermediate level.

Mr Wilson hopes his announcement will be acknowledged as an indication that ministers are prepared to do what they can to ease teacher burdens. But he will stress the importance of using the coming year to plan for the changeover which ought now to take place in more measured fashion.

Cosla has already given an undertaking that if the Government authorised a year's delay "education authorities would commit staff development resources to ensure that the programme was ready from 1999".

The directors repeated that assurance in a press statement this week. John Travers, the ADES's president, who is director in North Ayrshire, said: "We are confident that the Higher Still courses can be introduced successfully without phasing, providing there is the further one year's delay." Mr Travers has the key job of publicising the changes among parents, employers and pupils as chairman of the Higher Still information group.

The immediate priority, however, will be to target principal teachers, learning support specialists and guidance staff. They are due to become involved in staff development events next month when the training programme gets under way.

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector of schools, believes that this will ease the worries of the key subject leaders in schools.

The "considerable" demands of staff development were part of a six-point shopping list of requirements presented to the previous education minister by secondary heads when they urged a year's delay in February.

The Headteachers' Association of Scotland also warned that course documentation was "far from finished" for an August 1997 start, there were "inconsistencies of approach" between subjects, course materials awaited preparation, multi-level teaching "remains a contentious issue" and major calls on resources such as guidance and technology "require to be resolved".

Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, who chairs the ADES's Higher Still working group, believes the two-year lead-in time which is now being granted will allow some of these major issues to be dealt with "via a revised staff development programme involving a greater degree of local and national partnership".

It remains to be seen whether the Government's concession will alleviate union concerns on funding. The pound;14 million that will have been spent on Higher Still by the end of this financial year has gone to the development programme not to schools. This is one of the issues on which the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association says it must be satisfied if it is to call off its threatened ballot on a boycott of the reforms.

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