Edinburgh's college will offer a broad range of subjects for the most academic senior pupils who are not sufficiently challenged at the moment. That could pave the way for the abolition of the Scottish four-year university degree. It will also remove the concern in most secondary schools that there will not be sufficient uptake of Advanced Higher courses. To implement Advanced Higher will be costly, yet teachers want it because, as the Howie report said, "sixth-form education is not rigorous for many students".
Few secondary schools could offer the range of subjects available in such a college. Instead of one language there would be four or five. In the long term, if "senior colleges" took on the whole of the 16-18 range, that is fifth as well as sixth year, all the present concerns about "multi-level" teaching for Higher Still would disappear.
The concept of an advanced grade examination is not new. In 1947, the Advisory Council on Education made such a proposal, as happened again in 1960. The idea was to develop the talents of the most able pupils, to give direction and focus to sixth-year work and to lead pupils into positive and rewarding private study.
Critics felt we would go down the road of narrowly specialised A-level courses, but in 1966 came the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies designed to "supplement and not replace" existing certificates. CSYS was not intended to become the formal entrance requirement for university. As competition for university places increases, it is open to debate whether that position can be maintained with Advanced Higher.
There are good reasons for splitting the secondary age range in two. If larger comprehensive schools were reduced to a more manageable size, guidance services would improve, contacts with parents and pupils would be enhanced, discipline would be better and there would be better staff morale and identification between school and community.
We are still not concerned enough about the social and emotional as well as intellectual development of adolescents. Would a smaller secondary not enhance the 5-14 programme and improve integration with primary schools? Progress with S1 and S2 would help Standard grade, especially if a 12-16 comprehensive offered a broad range of motivating courses.
The social requirements of upper school pupils are such that many secondaries develop "schizophrenic" policies, running two schools under one roof. Senior pupils rebel against the juvenile atmosphere of most all-through comprehensives, thereby not only contributing to premature leaving but also encouraging transfer to the local college to study the same courses in a more adult setting.
Many schools try to treat sixth-year pupils as adults. They may sign in and out, have a common room, run charity events, not be compelled to wear uniform, be used as prefects, attend functions and trips with staff and other adults, have their own lecture programme and private study periods, but even these privileges do not compare with what a sixth-form college could offer.
It would concentrate in one establishment the teachers and resources for advanced work, and it would isolate 17 to 18-year-olds from the more controlled atmosphere of a school, allowing them greater opportunity to acquire self-discipline. In years to come such colleges will presumably be purpose-built and the staff-pupil ratio less than 10 to one. Teachers would be motivated if salaries are increased for specialist work.
Some teachers argue that to remove the senior school will disadvantage younger pupils through lack of contact with seniors. However, as How good is our school? stated: "Quality assurance means establishing an ethos that only the best will do for our students." The first principle is that education should fit the needs of pupils.
In a sixth-form college students would be assigned to a director of studies. There would be better preparation for university with, perhaps, entry to second year. There would be more instruction by specialist teachers, more independent study, greater encouragement of social responsibility. Some sixth-year pupils are held back at present by the values of their peer group or home background. In the college that would be less likely. Considering the money and resources expended on the least able, do our most academically gifted not deserve the same?
If we do not adopt sixth-form colleges, I believe that our fifth and sixth-year pupils will vote with their feet and transfer to local further education colleges.
There is only one way to counter this. Secondary schools would become community schools, as the SNP advocated and Labour is seriously considering. It is appalling that at the end of the school day the local community is denied access to classrooms, library, swimming pool, theatre, science and language labs, common room, assembly hall and equipment such as computers. With community schools we would have hundreds more adult students generating more income, better staffing, greater breadth of courses and above all an adult atmosphere which would encourage senior pupils to stay in secondary school.
If it were a true community school the sixth year would have to have a say in the running of it. A radical thought! One thing is for sure: Higher Still has effectively sounded the death knell for the 12-18 comprehensive school.
John Lloyd is principal teacher of modern studies at Inveralmond Community High School, Livingston.