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Keep baby safely in the 17-plus bathwater

Questions asked in the wake of the exam results debacle should not detract from the aims of Higher Still, says Tom Kelly

AFTER A CRISIS, lots of "why?" questions rise to the surface. Answers are now emerging to many of the key ones about the Scottish Qualifications Authority as the two parliamentary committee reports bring their evidence and conclusions.

There is nothing unhealthy about these sorts of questions. Of course, challenge and criticism sting their targets. It was SQA's certification process which broke down this summer, not the teaching, learning, or assessment in the schools and colleges. Some of us - though not many in the media or the letter columns - have sympathy for the SQA board and senior managers and ministers who are most in the firing line. There is an uneasy feeling that it is just a little too convenient that they get all the blame for what went wrong.

If the result of questioning is a debate about fundamentals, all well and good. But crisis in Scottish education has two very worrying characteristics.

The first is a return to outmoded preconceptions. Attacks on unit-based courses and internal assessment get ever more strident. Many of the critics want to turn the clock back to old 17-plus preconceptions and the "gown and parchment" model of early adulthood, concentrating res-ources, attention and certification on selection of the best students for the best places in the best universities.

Scotland likes to think of its distinctive education system as progressive and egalitarian. Would you support a return to 11-plus selection for secondary schools, a lower leaving age for the less able, and deliberate concentration of the best resources and facilities on the most able? Almost certainly not if you read this paper.

By all means let the Royal Bank of Scotland earn itself favours of political correctness by laying out some of its surplus funds on a few extra places for disadvantaged youngsters in our most exclusive universities. Actually, a few quid spent on teaching some academics in those universities the range and advantages of now standard qualifications - such as Scottish Higher National or Vocational Qualifications - would bring in more students from disadvantaged backgrounds!

Let's set a few facts against the preconceptions. More than 40 per cent of Scots entering full-time higher education for the first time now do so in an FE college. The equivalent figure for part-time HE is more than 70 per cent. A high proportion of students on Higher National courses - more than a fifth on the last available figure from three years ago - started studies at this level having no previous qualifications. More than half of those who study for Higher National awards go on to further study and qualifications.

The second worry is Scotland's habit of overlooking or diminishing vocational education and training. Of course, the route from school to niversity and academic study to age 21 is important for Scotland's future.

But 80 per cent of taxpayers in 10 years' time have already left school. Most of these have not gone to university or studied for degrees. If we want to transform Scotland's workforce, better opportunities for school-leavers to study academic subjects for degrees are only part of the solution.

Alternative routes to lifelong learning and employability are available and widely used. The world of work and training is changing far faster than the world of academic education. Everyone needs skills and experience as well as knowledge and understanding. It is simply absurd that Scotland values so little education and training to answer "what do you do?" and "how?", as well as "why?" questions.

Many of those who saw the Scottish Qualifications Certificate for the first time scoffed at the inclusion of unit passes and a skills profile. Of course, if you think the only thing that matters is getting your grades to get the place you want at university, there is no instant payback on these elements. But if you are planning other forms of education, training or employment, these are the starting points for lifelong learning and continuing development.

Just think about the very different zigzag routes people now take after leaving school. Nurses and bus conductors can go on to build multinational companies. Today's classroom assistants may well be classroom teachers of the future. Why is sticking to what you did at 21 on the basis of what you achieved at 17 held to be so much better and important?

Building in smaller increments, making sure that each learning outcome is attained, providing a context of learning which is relevant to the fast-changing work and experience of individuals may sound humdrum to today's or tomorrow's astro-physicists or metaphysicians. But it is what many Scots need most if they are to play a part in building the "knowledge economy" and "learning society" of the next 20 years.

So before we start throwing out uncomfortable bits of Higher Still such as units, internal assessment and new, more practical courses consider this. Why did Scotland tolerate so long the absence of adequate provision for the majority of 17-year-olds - those who start work, those who go into FE college or training programmes, and the winter school-leavers?

Public lambasting of "those to blame" at the SQA will have done no good if it simply reinstates the old elitism and exclusivity for which the old Highers were designed. Let us not forget that Higher Still was designed for three purposes - opportunity for all 16 to 18-year-olds, parity of esteem for vocational and work-based education and training, and a starting point for lifelong learning and employability.

It is high time that Scotland made these promises real.

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges.

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