It's hit and miss for Higher Still courses

THE latest annual progress report on Higher Still courses shows an "untidy" picture, a leading college principal says.

Iain Ovens of Dundee College, who chairs the National Qualifications strategy group for FE, said this was inevitable in a sector with a diverse group of 500,000 learners of all ages. Patterns of uptake varied considerably.

But Mr Ovens said that the report is still largely positive. Underlining the major difference between college and school attitudes, he said pointedly that the report from the Scottish Further Education Unit "reinforces the importance of the unit as the key qualifications currency for further education, a point which we can lose sight of in the course-focused press coverage that National Qualifications receive".

The survey, based on returns from 42 colleges, shows a 19 per cent rise in Higher Still provision last year, with the largest increase in computing and information technology. Although the Higher was the most common level of course, there was a 375 per cent increase in Advanced Highers offered and a 50 per cent rise in Access clusters.

But, given that 85 per cent of FE students are part-time, Higher Still affects a minority of students and many programmes in colleges have not been affected. This may continue to be the case, the report states.

Colleges still believe that Higher Still has made a number of positive contributions including a boost for subjects because of nationally certificated courses, the creation of Intermediate level awards, a greater range of provision and a more effective emphasis on core skills.

Colleges even praise external exams for helping to focus some students on their work. But "pervasive internal assessment" is regarded as continuing to have well-tried advantages and the written emphasis in external assessment does not suit many capable students.

The report also calls for some significant improvements, particularly in the relationship between National Qualifications, FE courses and higher education. Colleges report an overlap between some Higher units and higher national units, with some Highers more demanding than the HN units. The problem of finding the right level for students to progress up to HN courses continues to tax colleges: an Intermediate 2 or a Scottish Group Award at Higher level do not always fit the bill.

The report makes particular criticism of the group awards, which it says are "unnecessarily demanding", provide no incentive because they are not necessary for HN or some degree programmes and generate excessive external assessment.

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