Education may be plagued by emphasis on academic achievement and exam passes, but perhaps the only important test of its success is when a young person leaves the protective walls of school or college and makes what she or he can of the rest of the world.
This interface between education and the real world is ASDAN's patch: it is an award scheme in personal and social education which allows 14 to 19-year-old students of all abilities to have their achievements recorded and recognised. ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) is all about developing independence and self-confidence, about learning to work with others and finding out how the world operates.
"I'll tell you exactly what I like about ASDAN," says Margaret Carmichael, principal teacher of guidance at Paisley Grammar, in Renfrewshire. "A senior pupil has just told me that she's got an unconditional acceptance at Jordanhill and she says she would never have managed it without ASDAN.
"It's invaluable in getting pupils to do things on their own initiative, whether it's organising a school talent show or making a presentation. All the pupils say they didn't realise how much they were capable of doing."
ASDAN began in the early 1980s in the south-west of England. Word of it spread and by the mid-1990s it was in use in a third of secondary schools in England and Wales. Scotland has been slower to pick up on the scheme. Currently there are 37 centres using ASDAN, but it is steadily moving further into the mainstream of Scottish education.
Allan Scott, assistant head of Greenwood Academy in Irvine, North Ayrshire, and co-ordinator of ASDAN in Scotland, says: "It's selling itself. In 1995 my school was the only one using ASDAN in Scotland. Now I'm contacted by schools who have got hold of it through the teachers' network."
Mr Scott is in the process of rewriting the student materials with the Scottish curriculum in mind. A conference at Jordanhill, University of Strathclyde, on Wednesday, May 17, will look at ASDAN's contribution to the delivery of core skills and its relevance to Higher Still personal and social education and to the "progress file". Meanwhile, Ms Carmichael is hoping to pilot a joint ASDANScottish Qualifications Authority programme about working with others at Paisley Grammar next year.
Like the Duke of Edinburgh award, ASDAN is awarded at several levels: bronze, silver, gold and universities award. Each offers a choice of challenges which build towards the final award. Evidence of completed challenges, be it photographs of events, certiicates or written work, is amassed in a record book and assessed by a teacher. The areas that can be covered include information handling, the community, sport and leisure, industry and technology, the environment, expressive arts, number handling and beliefs and values. Once awards have been made, a random selection is assessed by accredited teachers from another school to ensure that standards are sustained.
Schools use ASDAN in different ways. The majority of Scottish schools use it in S3 and S4, when there is a bit of flexibility in the timetable. At Paisley Grammar, the gold and universities awards are an option for sixth-year pupils and are seen as valuable for job and university applications.
Greenwood Academy has a whole-school approach to the award scheme. "All pupils follow the life skills course, which takes up four periods a week," says headteacher Phil Galbraith. The entire S3 group takes part at bronze level, around 150 pupils take part at silver level and a few complete the gold and university awards. "Until now it's been voluntary at that level," says Mr Galbraith, "but we're going to timetable it."
Mr Galbraith is enthusiastic about ASDAN because it spans "the dichotomy between exam courses and the increasing requirement to cover areas that have relevance to the real world and which are not examinable". Moreover, he points out, unlike the Duke of Edinburgh awards which tend to appeal to only certain sectors of the school population, "in this awards scheme any youngster can achieve success". That is to say, the awards recognise that every student can make worthwhile achievements.
Greenwood Academy uses ASDAN to accredit short courses in religious education, as part of a progressive enterprise programme running from S1 to S6, in home economics, computing and in a European project linking up with partner schools in Spain and Germany. "There is an important place for non-exam subjects," says Mr Galbraith, "and it gives us an opportunity to pick up projects without impingeing on the exam curriculum."
Mr Galbraith is particularly pleased that it is a scheme developed by and for teachers. "Variations or additional units can be added by those using the materials. It is still owned by teachers."
Margaret Carmichael, who has three hours a week in her timetable for ASDAN, says: "It's not as straightforward as walking in and teaching a class, but it can be more rewarding."
She spent her Easter holiday dotting up and down to the West Highland Way, where her ASDAN group was on expedition. "Last time," she says, "they enjoyed it so much I couldn't get them to come home."
For details of the ASDAN conference tel 0117 923 9843