As new labour rushed in Tory scheme
Teachers warned exam meant chaos
TENS OF thousands of school students in Scotland faced mounting stress and uncertainty this week as a new exam system imposed on Scottish schools descended into chaos.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority, the quango responsible for administering the exams, announced this week that it was re-checking the results of 147,000 pupils who have just sat their end of school exams. Results were supposed to be issued last week but the process went into meltdown. Thousands of pupils received incomplete results or none at all for exams which determine job and university prospects.
Kirsty Anderson from Edinburgh was typical of many students. She opened her envelope to find there were no grades for drama and biology, but results for two exams she did not sit. A plumber living in London who left school 14 years ago received results for this year's exams!
New Labour education minister Sam Galbraith tried to dismiss the meltdown of the system as just "anecdotal stories". But over 10,000 calls to the Scottish Qualifications Authority's helpline forced its boss, Ron Tuck, to resign on Saturday. He was on 80,000 a year and is to get a 100,000 golden handshake. Galbraith was refusing to resign at the beginning of this week.
He and the exam authority have tried to make out that the problems are down to computer glitches. But the dreadful pressure students and parents are under is the direct result of the Scottish Executive's decision to press ahead with a new exam system at breakneck speed against the warnings of teachers.
The new exam is called Higher Still and was first dreamed up by the Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, in 1994. New Labour could have abandoned the scheme. It could have modified it. It could certainly have listened to the overwhelming majority of teachers who wanted its introduction delayed.
Instead the then New Labour education minister Helen Liddle chose to impose the new exam on schools last year. Some 88 percent of teachers in the main teaching union, the EIS, had voted to boycott the new exam unless it was delayed by a year. They warned that there was not enough time to prepare schools and pupils for it.
"The introduction of Higher Still was driven by political expediency, not educational practice," says Glasgow secondary teacher Helen Blair. "The press vilified teachers for calling for a delay. We were called dinosaurs and lazy. New Labour threatened to punish us by taking away our national negotiating rights. Our union leaders caved in and called off the boycott. But the chaos over the results has vindicated what teachers were saying last year."
Higher Still introduces regular exams for students throughout the year, rather than a block of papers at the end of the course. Continuous assessment can be a more accurate method of measuring students' performance than exams.
But the Higher Still assessments are mini-exams that have intimidated students because they require students to meet the standards at the beginning of the course which were previously expected at the end of it.
Staff face long hours
TEACHERS have been given little extra time for marking the assessments and preparing the new coursework. Despite that, teachers and schools met the frantic timetable for implementing Higher Still this year.
The exam authorities did not meet the deadlines. They did not recruit enough markers and shortened the time they had from three weeks to two. "I have been marking for eight years," says Helen Blair, "and I have never seen such a mess.
"The staggering thing is that the politicians who insisted on Higher Still coming in this year are now trying to escape responsibility."
These politicians also want to ram through a wholesale attack on teachers' conditions. The McCrone inquiry proposals talk of increasing the number of working hours where teachers are at management's beck and call. They make no recommendation for reducing class sizes.
The same papers that ridiculed teachers' warnings about Higher Still are now claiming that the McCrone proposals offer them a big pay increase. EIS teachers' union leaders are desperate to get teachers to accept the proposals. But there was growing anger in staffrooms at the end of last term over sacrificing hard-won conditions.
Increasing numbers of teachers in Scotland see that the government's education policy is about pushing the same free market principles that now dominate schools in England and Wales.