FE COLLEGES tend to be overlooked in the Higher Still debate, which is actually about post-16 education not just Highers in schools. Scottish Office figures show there are 300,000 FE students on non-advanced courses against 75,000 in school fifth and sixth years. At least a half of all college programmes will be affected by Higher Still.
None the less, Anne Davidson, assistant principal of West Lothian College, says colleges are not "rushing headlong" into Higher Still. "We have done our curricular audit, showing where changes are required, and we will shortly be sitting down to have detailed discussions with heads of department now that the full specifications are coming through from the Scottish Qualifications Authority."
John Young, a director of the Scottish Further Education Unit and one of the seven-strong national support team helping colleges prepare, reinforces the West Lothian approach and says change will be incremental.
"Colleges will be able to continue with their modular-based National Certificate provision," Mr Young says. "They will be looking very hard at the value added by Higher Still. They will go for it only if it meets the needs of their students, attracts more students and therefore generates more funding, addresses the needs of employers and improves links with higher education through the Advanced Higher."
This will be very much the case in West Lothian, allaying early staff fears that all units and courses would be forced down the Higher Still route. "In FE, there is no one answer," Mrs Davidson says. "There is a different answer for every vocational area."
So National Certificate modules, internally assessed, will still be available for adult returners or employers, for example, who demand more flexibility than Higher Still can offer with its fixed diets for external examinations.
Mrs Davidson cannot see technology courses being adapted to Higher Still since they have been devised with the local employers of silicon glen in mind. Mhairi Laughlin, the head of community studies, says existing nursery nurse courses are also likely to continue because the Nursery Nurse Examination Board has a highly prescriptive UK-wide regime which must be followed before students gain registration.
West Lothian's plans for 1999 are therefore to convert traditional Highers to Higher Still programmes and to offer at least three full Scottish Group Awards (combinations of subjects), "provided the materials are in place". The group awards will be in business, care and information technology.
Moira Glencorse, the head of administration and computing, says group awards will not be suitable in all cases. Some departments might simply offer one or two Higher Still courses.
The story so far illustrates the complexities of the modern FE college. It has to link with the highly diverse needs of schools, universities and employers. Add in the mix of full and part-time courses, young and old, students who have special needs, no previous qualifications or are en route to higher education, and the headache of implementing a major curriculum and assessment reform can only be imagined.
West Lothian has been paying particular attention to its relationships with the 11 local secondary schools. The college already has 2,000 fourth, fifth and sixth-year pupils on varied enrolments from one-day work simulation programmes to engineering and maths workshops.
Anne Davidson expects numbers on school link programmes to stay broadly the same. "We have stressed to schools that we don't want to poach their students. They will come to us hopefully with higher levels of qualification which means we should be able to take them on further."
Ms Laughlin, whose responsibilities include courses in care, says overlap and duplication with schools will have to be avoided. "While the General Scottish Vocational Qualification (GSVQ) in care can be developed easily into a Scottish Group Award, for example, schools will be keen to offer that as well and we must ensure there is no repetition in what the college delivers."
The contribution of FE should be to add on "extras" such as psychology and sociology for which schools could not run viable classes, Ms Laughlin says.
Ms Glencorse makes the same point in relation to computing, where the existing GSVQ leads to progression into Higher National awards and then on into higher education. "We have to make sure we don't duplicate the provision and offer students an enhanced curriculum when they come to college," she says.
Mr Young suggests an opposite scenario, however. "Higher Still could well result in schools widening their provision," he says. "Colleges, too, will offer what schools are offering, particularly for adult returners interested in more general than vocational studies. They will therefore wish to run with a range of Higher and Intermediate programmes."
West Lothian College has gone for collaboration with the local education authority. College curricular leaders have got together with subject principal teachers, and school staff are involved in developing the delivery of Scottish Group Awards.
Jeanette Condie, school liaison officer at the college, expects the existing programmes with schools to be extended and perhaps made more formalised.
She suggests schools are likely to face more problems, particularly in the assessment field where colleges are well advanced in handling internal assessment and external verification.