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Advanced Higher in peril

The Advanced Higher has proved to be an unmitigated success. While the modularised English A-level has lost ground, the Advanced Higher attracts a UCAS tariff of 10 points more at grades A, B, C than A-level, which is an acknowledgment of a more intellectually-challenging qualification.

It follows on logically from study at Higher which, in Scotland, remains the gold standard for students looking towards university. Levels of knowledge and understanding required ensure that students are broadly informed and have a sound basis for further study. They achieve the transition between school-based learning and the independent intellectual activity required of undergraduates in higher education.

The qualification has attracted plaudits from the education establishment and the Scottish Government. Scottish universities will admit successful Advanced Higher candidates on to the second year of undergraduate courses, particularly in the sciences, while employers recognise that a pass at this level shows intellectual potential and application.

In spite of this, the take-up at Advanced Higher, in a range of subjects, is pitifully low. While Scottish universities may be partly accountable by continuing to make unconditional offers to sixth-year students on the basis of past performance at Higher, they cannot be blamed exclusively for the decline.

The fault lies with the authorities for whom the Advanced Higher is an educational fact, but an economic burden. Numbers opting for specific subjects are low. The argument goes that Advanced Higher is uneconomic, given the cost of teacher time which could be better deployed elsewhere.

Subjects, and sometimes the entire AH curriculum, can disappear from a school's, or even an authority's, timetable. Students facing a sixth year without them can choose to improve on Higher grades, take "crash" Highers, apply to universities a year earlier than they would prefer or opt for a gap year.

The consequences are serious. Students are not prepared for independent learning, and the analytical approach required for university study. In addition, the universities to which they can apply is limited. This is true for those applying to universities south of the border, where conditional offers are the norm and the expectation of success at Advanced Higher, or A-level, conventional.

Suggestions that independent schools, where Advanced Highers flourish and where large numbers choose the qualification in several subjects, should help out, or that state schools should pool their resources, are fine. These alternatives are an admission of failure and demonstrate a reluctance by the Government to "put its money where its mouth is", and insist that authorities offer our most talented children the quality of education in their final year at school which they merit, and which the nation needs.

The independent sector might be able to accommodate Advanced Highers for some, but those places need to be funded. If state schools are to pool resources, the logistics are complicated.

In these straitened times, it is understandable that private and public sector bodies should seek ways of delivering their products by cheaper methods, but it is the next generation who will lead the current generation out of today's economic recession - only, however, if all children, including the academically most gifted, are educated to the highest standards. They hold the key to a more productive, innovative and enterprising nation.

The Scottish Government must ensure that the Advanced Higher survives and provide the necessary funding for it in schools of all kinds throughout Scotland, so that this first-class qualification is properly resourced and accessible to all.

David Gray is principal of Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools, Edinburgh.

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