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Higher Still needs informed parents

An actress well-known on both sides of the Atlantic confessed recently on Radio 4's "Desert Island Discs" that decades ago at school she had been lazy and unmotivated towards working for the all-important drama school scholarship.

From a working class background, she lacked parental understanding or encouragement, she said. But she was fortunate to have an outstanding drama teacher who physically took her to see a large typing pool in action, in order to demonstrate just where she would spend her working life unless effort was forthcoming. That was enough to set a glittering career on track.

"Opportunity Scotland," the Green Paper on lifelong learning currently out for consultation, fully recognises the vital role that teachers and the whole school experience play in motivating young folk of all shades and grades of ability towards a positive view of learning.

Sadly, the current predictable fiasco surrounding the introduction of Higher Still looks set to deny a real extension of such opportunity and choice to just those children most in need of them.

Phasing-in is fine (pity about the waste - an extra half a million a year to fund examination systems' twin-tracking) except for one narking suspicion. I should be delighted to be proved wrong, but suggest you don't hold your breath waiting for most schools in deprived areas to be at the front of the Higher Still phase-in queue.

So what went wrong? Let's leave aside self-absorbed and destructive union intransigence (probably the challenge by which this minister will be remembered). It is hard not to conclude that the name "Higher Still" itself is partly responsible for a limited public understanding of what is on offer.

It is also hard not to conclude that a major error was made in starting preparations with the emphasis on the new "Higher" itself, and not with its lower levels.

Of course this was done for the best of reasons. Converting what already existed into unit form was considered at the time potentially less disruptive.

Leafing through the welter of excellent briefing and user-friendly materials now being showered on staffrooms the length of the land, I was struck by the diminishing amount of reference to the lower levels of Higher Still, with the Access level rating barely a mention.

The Higher Still implementation group is no doubt beavering away at publicity, as did its precursor, the strategy group's marketing committee. Despite these efforts a quick straw poll of current S3-S4 parents - the very people most susceptible to union suggestions that their children may become guinea pigs - revealed that most believed Higher Still to be concerned only with reform to the Higher itself.

The notion that achievement at all three levels of Standard grade now becomes a rung of the ladder leading directly into options for lifelong learning is poorly understood.

Teachers know that achievement at Foundation level leads into Intermediate 1; at General level into Intermediate 2: and that success at Credit level is the step into the new fifth year Higher. Many parents do not understand these sequences and the opportunities they offer their children.

Still less do some of the most educationally disadvantaged parents understand what is now on offer for offspring who do not even aspire to Foundation level at Standard grade.

The "Access" level of Higher Still itself has three levels: this is indeed Opportunity for All. Given motivation, achievement is possible for even those with the gravest learning difficulties.

So here's some free advice for the Scottish Office. Get out there now with a directed parents' information campaign and target every S3S4 parent in Scotland.

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