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Better than a year at university?;Comment;Opinion

Further consultation on the Scottish Group Awards under Higher Still has just closed. The fact that there was need for a second round perhaps indicates that the 1996 consultation failed to deliver a clear message from schools. One theme did emerge: the more that curriculum planners focus and prescribe, the more artificial barriers and limitations are liable to be created.

The current proposals are simplified and streamlined, extending group awards to all five levels of Higher Still, and proposing a new internally assessed group award at Access II. But there has always been a possibility that group awards may be in danger of not meeting the needs of the total school ability spectrum. The reality is that the advantages of group awards are not all that obvious to schools, at least in the more academic tracks. This is true to the extent that there is now growing pressure from the school sector for phased introduction of group awards.

Colleges and community education seem happier with the group award concept. It is as sound an approach for general educational purposes as ever it was in the heyday of Scotvec's modules and GSVQs. Herein could lie the needs of a perceived twin-tracking which will, to say the least, be unhelpful in achieving genuine parity of esteem. You can visualise it: individual programming for the fast track and group awards for the rest.

The rationale for the group award reads impeccably. The Higher Still stable argues that group awards are the vehicle for coherent programmes and clear progression routes. They will indicate a certain level of overall education attainment. And as a millennium trump card they will demonstrate core skills achievement across the piece.

The difficulty with group awards and the top academic 10 per cent is hardly the fault of the curriculum planners. It is rooted in the individualistic attitudes of Scotland's universities which are, moreover, currently learning rather fast about market forces. A little story illustrates. One secondary head, accustomed to encouraging UCCA applications in two batches (October for the organised and December for the rest), told me recently of his amazement when some students received unconditional offers in November 1997. (Next year he fully intends every application from his school to be with UCCA by September.) Admissions officers desperately want top of the range entrants, and the scene is set to become a buyer's market. It is the brightest pupils who will call the tune on group awards at Higher or Advanced Higher levels, not the planners at Higher Still or the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

In fact, the outlook for sixth year as a popular choice has never looked better - no pound;1,000 to pay for that option. That may well be excellent news for group award take-up. It will certainly breathe new vigour into the upper reaches of secondary schools.

The concomitant, however, will be the withering on the vine of the four-year degree. Already St Andrew's University, with an eye on its lucrative English market, is pointing the way with proposals for varied and flexible course entry points. Other universities will not lag far behind. Higher education has been tradition bound and slow to face the reality that currently first year can be a pretty leisurely experience, even water treading, for students with A-levels or CSYS.

The logic of individual progression in Scottish schools (still to be achieved in S1-S2) underlines the mark-time nature of the traditional first university year for many. Tuition fees will be the catalyst for more student-centred entry arrangements. Top achievers will be able to pick and choose.

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