Group awards within the structure of General Scottish Vocational Qualifications have established a firm place in the curriculum of Inverkeithing High School near Dunfermline in Fife.
More than 90 of the senior pupils undertake a group award, with only a handful failing to complete courses because they leave for a job or college place. More than 80 per cent achieve the full award, despite initial scepticism that the need to pass all components of study would prove beyond many candidates.
The awards, which come under the Scottish Qualifications Authority, set up this year by the Government to merge academic and vocational awards, exemplify the authority's aims of coherence and progression in young people's curricula. GSVQs offer a stepping-stone beyond the Standard grade exams taken in Secondary 4. Inverkeithing finds them particularly valuable for pupils not suited to a concentrated diet of Highers in Secondary 5. They lead on to more advanced programmes in further education.
The school runs courses at one or two levels in business education, care, design, hospitality, information technology and technology. Each award comprises 12 or 13 modules that demonstrate competence in a vocational area and in the core skills of communication, numeracy, computer literacy, personal and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving. Motivation among pupils is high; they have also set up a student council to represent theirinterests.
The school leaves nothing to chance. A day's induction introduces pupils to the nuances of competence-based assessment, team working, problem-solving and self-assessment. Pupils are supported by a course tutor, an addition to the school's guidance system. One attraction to pupils has been the impact of group awards on employers, who had previously been lukewarm about base-level national modules promoted by the former Scottish Vocational Education Council, one of SQA's predecessor bodies. David Grubb, a sixth-year pupil, said: "Employers will notice a group award on your CV more than they would a collection of individual modules."
An award is also not dependent on an exam, so pupils know for certain that they will have something to show for their toil.
There is also the option of combining an award programme with doing one or more academic Highers.
David Grubb, for example, is working towards a level two award in IT as well as taking Higher English. He has also embarked on Higher physical education. It is a programme that leaves him with wide choices and fall-back positions at the end of his sixth year.
Lindsay Roy, Inverkeithing High's headteacher, says that the school owes some of its success with its post-16 curriculum to a good relationship with Lauder College of FE in Dunfermline. Some group award pupils attend college one day a week, benefiting from facilities in computing, engineering and hospitality not available in school and getting a chance to sample FE. The two institutions might have been at each other's throats in a competition for post-16 pupils. But, as well as the partnership arrangements for the group awards, there are plans for Lauder students to attend the school's Highers classes. "We complement rather than compete with each other," Mr Roy says.
The group awards have gained "real credibility" with staff, parents and pupils, he says. "They have also allowed us to demonstrate that the whole senior school population - and not just those doing academic Highers - is valued."