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A benchmark for able pupils

Lorna Ogilvie looks at the role of the Advanced Higher in university entrance

The most able pupils in Scottish schools will in all likelihood hold influential roles in business, industry or government in 20 years' time. Therefore it is crucial that they are challenged to achieve at the highest level at school and university through a broad curriculum that is academically demanding and intellectually and personally challenging. Within the Higher Still development programme, a small group was asked to identify the needs of the most able and make recommendations for areas of further development. As a starting point, able students were defined as those who presently achieve four or five Highers at one sitting in S5, and hence receive unconditional offers of a degree course early in S6.

Such offers have two immediate consequences. Firstly, able pupils are tempted to relax, often supported by parents who have witnessed the input required during S5 for success in the "two-term dash" to Highers. Secondly, motivation to achieve their potential in S6 is lost. The realisation that results of the exams they are working towards will have no influence on their future career can remove any incentive to aim for high grades.

To provide challenge and motivation through S6 and into university, the group concluded:

* That they required a demanding two-year programme throughout S5S6.

* That the traditionally different approaches to learning and teaching in these two years would benefit from reappraisal.

* That a level 4 (Advanced Higher) group award would be needed, as the level 3 award, with its basic requirement of three Highers, offered insufficient challenge.

* That opportunities for personal and social challenge through an extended experience beyond the classroom should be part of the group award at Advanced Higher.

* That there would be a need to ensure acceptance and use of Advanced Higher by higher education.

The successful implementation of the Higher Still programme in meeting the needs of able students depends on all of these factors. A challenging two-year programme must address depth, breadth and pace of work.

Bypassing external assessment at the end of S5 in subjects that are carried forward into S6 will facilitate sustained pace and progression, but must be accompanied by an acceptable safety net which gives credit for attainment throughout the course. Both pupils and parents will require reassurance that in the event of unexpected failure at the end of S6, for whatever reason, past achievements will be recognised.

Bypassing benefits pupils enormously through minimising the time spent on examinations in S5, and thus lessening the "two-term dash", as well as providing an incentive for achievement at the highest level to meet university entry requirements at the end of S6.

A staff development programme to support such changes in curriculum planning is essential and must target school management and careers and guidance teachers as well as those at the chalkface. The Advanced Higher courses, and group award, must be achievable in all schools irrespective of size, range of pupil abilities or geographical location. For this reason, the learning and teaching strategies being advocated and developed must be delivered in a variety of ways. Self-supported study, distance learning and information technology will all have their place.

Proposals for Scottish group awards at Advanced Higher level in science and mathematics, as well as arts and humanities, are incorporated in the latest consultation documents. I personally hope that the profession will consider that these awards, with their pass, merit and distinction levels, are the way to challenge our most able, and best prepare them for the role that they will play in the future of our country.

As we approach the millennium, there is an almost unbelievable rate of change in the nature of the workplace, in communications and in flexibility of movement within Europe and worldwide. Should we not therefore also ask of our most able pupils that their Advanced Higher group award includes at least one Higher level modern language?

In addition, might pupils not benefit from an extended experience reflecting personal challenge beyond the classroom and incorporating both leadership and team skills? The inclusion of such qualifications within the Advanced Higher group award would create an award reflecting educational excellence in the best, and broadest, sense. Such an award would surely have the potential to be recognised not just within Scotland, but more importantly in Europe and beyond, and thus create greater international opportunities for our able pupils.

To achieve such a vision would involve effective co-operation between those in schools and those in higher education. Scotland, in common with most of Europe, values its four-year undergraduate degree. It is good that wider access to higher education has encouraged more pupils to complete S6 and achieve the necessary Highers for university entry.

It is clear that Highers will remain the entrance qualification for the majority, but the more able require additional challenge throughout their final years at school and pathways to move forward into higher education at a pace appropriate to their ability.

A two-year set of courses and activities throughout S5 and S6, with an appropriate blend of learning and teaching approaches, supporting and encouraging increasing independence, are the prerequisite for successfully challenging these able pupils.

Within universities consideration must be urgently given to incorporating the Advanced Higher and its associated group award into entrance requirements. For all subjects universities must review the Advanced Higher content and look for ways to give appropriate credit for all, or part of first-year courses. Links to the Scotcat (credit transfer) framework must also be given consideration.

Many able pupils in Scotland currently follow English A-level courses in S6. Last year they represented around 18 per cent of the combined total of presentations at Certificate of Sixth Year StudiesA-level. Could we hope that through acceptance of Advanced Highers by Scottish universities, many of our schools would revert to offering a totally Scottish curriculum as opposed to one with an "English" A-level?

As the development phases of Higher Still nears an end, and schools and colleges prepare for implementation, it is crucial for those in higher education, business and industry in Scotland to respond positively. Clearly it is in their interest to make Higher Still succeed, and it will be a lost opportunity if the Advanced Higher and its Higher group award do not become the benchmark for able pupils entering universities in both Scotland and England.

"Able pupils" constitute a small percentage of the school population, but they deserve special consideration as they have the potential to be the "best" in their future careers - and surely Scotland and its universities can ill afford to lose their input.

Lorna Ogilvie is headteacher of St Margaret's School for Girls, Aberdeen, and a member of the Higher Still strategy group and chairman of the able pupils group

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