New qualification will enhance young people's chances in further education and employment
Pupils starting Highers this year will be the first to have the chance of gaining a Scottish Baccalaureate in languages or the sciences.
Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, told a conference of the Institute of Biology Scotland, in Stirling, yesterday that the new qualification would place science, modern languages and technology "at the heart of education".
The commitment to the Scottish Baccalaureate was part of the SNP election manifesto last year. "The awards aim to encourage more of our young people to study science and language courses in the later stages of secondary school, raise the status of S6 and assist our young people in making the transition from school to higher and further education and employment," Ms Hyslop said.
The bac will be made up of a group of Higher and Advanced Higher exams, with an interdisciplinary project at Advanced Higher level to be undertaken in S6. The first awards will be made in 2010.
Unlike the Welsh or international bac, which are broad-based and include different disciplines, the Scottish bac will be very specialist.
The Scottish science bac will require students to do an interdisciplinary project, such as how the life sciences are used in industry and the ethical issues involved; two sciences and maths at Higher; and an Advanced Higher science subject.
The language bac also requires pupils to do an interdisciplinary project in S6 (an example being how Scotland's tourism and culture are perceived by speakers of other languages). But they must also have either English or Gaidhlig and two modern or classical languages at Higher, and a modern or classical language at Advanced Higher.
Pupils studying for the bac will achieve either a "pass" or a "distinction". A pass requires success in all the courses studied, while a distinction will be achieved if they get an A grade in their Advanced Higher and at least a B grade for all other courses.
No decision has yet been made on whether or how the inter-disciplinary project will be graded. A Government spokeswoman said the Scottish Qualifications Authority would be developing grading proposals in discussion with "key stakeholders".
David Raffe, professor of sociology of education at Edinburgh University, said the credibility of the Scottish bac would rest on how much added value it had compared to straight Higher or Advanced Higher passes.
The added value would be decided by the interdisciplinary project, so it was important that it be graded, although there were always problems associated with the assessment of this type of individual project, he said.
John Howie, who chaired the committee which produced the Howie report in 1992 on the future of secondary education, saw some parallels with his committee's recommendations that there be two streams within the final years of secondary - one science-based, the other arts-based.
However, his report called for science students to study a language, and arts students to do a science, as well as a much stronger focus on statistics. The Howie report was rejected, he claimed, because of higher education opposition, prompted by fears it would lead to the replacement of the Scottish four-year honours degree with a three-year one.
Professor Howie suggested that students with a Scottish bac were likely to be given entry into second year of university, provided they had high grades.
Some members of the university sector are sympathetic to the idea of a broad-based, individual study baccalaureate. The Welsh response has been that the reaction of the higher education sector is critical to its success or otherwise.
Jack Jackson, HMIE's retired national science specialist, said a baccalaureate in science would provide pupils with a "more rounded qualification". He also felt the interdisciplinary project had the potential to give pupils "a greater appreciation of the importance of the sciences to future employment and to economic growth".
Lesley Sawers, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry said the introduction of the qualification would better align education with the needs of the economy. "SCDI has long stressed the importance of ensuring that young people have good quality skills in mathematics, science and engineering to help boost Scotland's economy, particularly in fast-developing areas such as hi-tech manufacturing, renewable energy industry and carbon-capture technology," she said. "We need more young people to develop foreign language skills to help hone our competitive edge internationally."