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Selling the baccalaureate to Oxford and Cambridge

News | Published in TESS on 13 November, 2009 | By: Henry Hepburn

New Scottish baccalaureate may be enough on its own to get pupils into the universities

Original paper headline: Can we sell the baccalaureate to Oxford and Cambridge?

After years of fighting to raise the status of the Advanced Higher - now considered by many in higher education to be a superior qualification to the A-level - the Scottish Qualifications Authority is attempting to convince Oxbridge that the baccalaureate is equivalent to the standard entry requirement of three Advanced Highers.

Although the baccalaureate need only involve two Advanced Highers and one Higher, its interdisciplinary project has become a big selling point, thanks to the independence it demands of pupils.

“I know the SQA is trying to say to Oxford and Cambridge, ‘Would you take the baccalaureate in lieu of three Advanced Highers?’” revealed Sarah Breslin, director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (SCILT).

Oxford and Cambridge had become “very responsive to the Advanced Higher”, she said, after several years of Scottish educational organisations “beating the drum” for the qualification. Now they had to be persuaded of the baccalaureate’s merits - and there were encouraging signs.

Ms Breslin, who in her previous job at the SQA worked to improve the status of the baccalaureate, said the strong emphasis on self-evaluation had impressed the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Skills which had been proven to help successful first-year university students, she added, were also those crucial to the baccalaureate’s interdisciplinary project.

Ms Breslin’s comments came during a workshop at the annual conference of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (SALT) in Stirling last weekend, where a presenter from the University of the West of Scotland explained that she and her colleagues had already been largely won over by the baccalaureate.

Susan Stuart, an admissions officer for languages degrees, was impressed by the autonomy expected and said that successful candidates would be capable of starting university in second year.

She added that universities and schools sometimes did not have enough contact, but the baccalaureate could improve relations and ease pupils’ transition into higher education.

The same session, however, also shed light on the obstacles that might prevent the new qualification achieving credibility, weeks after it emerged that only 13 schools and colleges had signed up to the languages baccalaureate this year (and 63 to the science equivalent).

Lyn McCartney, principal modern languages teacher at Madras College in St Andrews, said teachers were not being given extra time to work with baccalaureate candidates, with non-contact periods used instead. That experience was echoed by several teachers at her presentation, while another had been given extra time but said she would have gone “mad” otherwise.

Mrs McCartney, whose school has two pupils doing the languages baccalaureate, said the new qualification was “scary because it’s not prescriptive”. One boy wanted to bring music into his interdisciplinary project, an area in which she had no expertise.

There was a “huge onus” on teachers from the start of interdisciplinary projects - much of it to find expert partners to advise in specialist areas - as the final product contributed only part of the overall mark, although Mrs McCartney argued this was one of the baccalaureate’s strengths.

“It’s not to do with what they end up with,” Mrs McCartney said. “It’s how they go about that, and that’s what’s going to bridge the gap between school and university.”

A teacher from another school, however, warned that pupils were still uncertain about the baccalaureate’s value. One high-flying pupil had signed up but subsequently dropped out because she did not know how it would be viewed by the Oxbridge universities.

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