You’ll get help but don’t delay exams, Mike Russell tells schools

SCHOOLS are to be given more help to make sure they are ready for the introduction of Scotland’s new exam system, but will be discouraged from postponing its start date.

Education secretary Mike Russell has vowed that extra measures will be put in place to help schools make the transition from Standard Grades to the new National qualifications, which are due to be introduced next year.

But schools are unlikely to be encouraged to follow the example of East Renfrewshire, which has said it will defer the exams in all its secondaries by a year to allow teachers more time to prepare.

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Mr Russell yesterday met with the country’s biggest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), amid growing concern about how the introduction of the new exams is being handled.

The meeting followed the minister’s earlier appearance in the Scottish Parliament, where he confirmed controversial plans to scrap the chartered teacher scheme and introduce “external experts” into classrooms.

Mr Russell said everything would be done to make sure individual subject departments in schools did not feel the need to defer the start of the exams, including making extra money available to ease the transition.

He said: “This is a vitally important programme and a huge benefit for every child in Scotland. If any school genuinely feels it could not cope then they should seek help. I would encourage that and say that every ounce of help is available.”

Asked if financial help would be made available, he said: “I have not ruled that out. If at any stage anyone feels they need help of that kind, I would look at it seriously.

“The policy we have is that if individual departments don’t feel they can deliver on time, they should be able to say so. What I have said today to add to that, is that there is help to ensure everybody is supported. East Renfrewshire does things in a different way. What I have said is that Curriculum for Excellence is an advantage to every child and East Renfrewshire agrees with me. There is a big obligation on East Renfrewshire, but we have accepted they are different.”

However, Larry Flanagan, the incoming head of the EIS, which represents 55,000 teachers across Scotland, said it was clear the minister was against allowing individual schools or subject departments to delay.

He said: “Mike Russell said he is willing to listen to various issues around workload and the level of resource, but unwilling to concede an across-the-board delay. He did say that groups of subjects could approach Education Scotland through their local authority.

“He said he would look at providing additional resources to schools and was trying to identify additional financial resources as well as additional in-service days to support the new qualifications. He also said he would look at the SQA’s [Scottish Qualifications Authority] delivery of various consultative documents. It’s probably as much as we could expect.

“He does not accept that there are a number of schools asking for a delay and did not want to give the green light for everybody to consider it for the sake of it. We would have preferred a more open approach to schools seeking delays. We are pleased he has at least not closed the door, but he’s clearly inclined against it.”

Debate surrounding the introduction of the new exams began again last week after the SQA published new guidance for teachers on delivering the new National 4 and National 5 courses.

The National 4, which replaces Standard Grade general level and Intermediate 1, and National 5, which replaces Standard Grade credit level and Intermediate 2, are due to be introduced at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

However, East Renfrewshire, which is home to some of Scotland’s best-performing state schools, has said it will delay the introduction of the exams by a year because it is in the unique situation of having stopped Standard Grades in 2005, replacing the qualifications with Intermediates.

Liz Smith MSP, the Tory education spokeswoman, said the decision to treat East Renfrewshire as a “special case” meant the SNP was “all over the place” on the implementation of the new exams.

She said: “It is ludicrous to suggest there is anything ‘special’ about the position of any one local authority. East Renfrewshire happens to have some of the best education results in the country and if it chooses to delay the implementation of the exams for a short period because teachers there decide it is in the best interests of their pupils, then they should be allowed to do so.

“So should other local authorities if that’s what they decide too. They should not then be told that it would be ‘tremendously disruptive’ if they don’t push ahead with what the Scottish Government wants.”

The confusion surrounding the new exams has echoes of the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence itself, which had to be delayed by a year due to concerns from teachers.

The Scottish Government said “intensive additional support” would be provided for subject departments unready for the new exams, but said no individual department had yet come forward requesting such help.

Councillor Isabel Hutton, education spokeswoman for local authority umbrella organisation Cosla, said councils remained committed to the introduction of the new exams to enhance education.

She said: “We are committed to ensure that the new qualifications are very much on track and on time to enable our schools and learners to forge ahead with the new curriculum and sitting the new exams in 2014.”