Clear career pathways must be opened to all

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Scotland should make good its failure to develop the potential of a significant number of its young people

It was good to read Graham Donaldson's recent piece on combating disadvantage - the main challenge facing Scottish education, according to the Quality and Equity of School in Scotland report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2007). The further development of the Scottish teaching profession envisaged in Teaching Scotland's Future will certainly help us meet this challenge - individual teachers can and do, every day, make a significant difference to the learning lives and future opportunities of individual children. But however good the teachers, this is not a job teachers or schools can do on their own.

"Flexibility", at institutional and classroom level, can play an important role in improving our response to social challenge, but it is decidedly not, as Donaldson suggests, "the key". Conceptualising the processes involved in terms of individual teachers and students neglects the broader social processes which constrain them.

Although many such factors are specific to communities and context, there are vital aspects of national policy, particularly as young people get closer to the adult world they will enter after school. One is post-15 curriculum design, where it seems we are still missing opportunities.

Following the Howie Report in the early 1990s, the Scottish civic community clearly rejected its proposed "two track" curriculum. The resultant flexible Higher Still compromise rationalised non-advanced provision in schools and FE post-16, while retaining Higher as the gold standard. Indeed, those students aiming at Higher continued to get the best deal. The very term "Intermediate" made clear the differing status of the programmes on offer.

In the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) "senior phase", this continues to be the case. Those aiming for Higher are able to access long-established, well-understood programmes which lead to varied pathways beyond school. There is a common social understanding across the country about this route - and it works.

A larger number of young Scots than ever before are now able to follow this path, in part because of increased flexibility in the post-16 curriculum. In 2011, after 11 years of Higher Still, more than 75 per cent of school-leavers who passed at least one Higher (SCQF Level 6) went on to full-time courses in further or higher education, with a further 18 per cent going straight into employment.

Those who are not so academically successful, though smaller in number, have much less secure progression. In the same year, 43 per cent of those who left school with less than two awards at SCQF Level 3 were neither employed nor in further education, while a significant number of those who at first entered a short-term positive destination (such as a Get Ready for Work course) were later out of work.

One of the uncomfortable facts of Scottish secondary school life, somewhat masked by our schools' success in aiming to respect all children equally, is that from age 13 pupils start to realise which of the many potential educational "tracks" they are headed for. Those unable to aspire to Higher, or its diluted Level 5 cousin, have to navigate a much more hazardous, less secure terrain than their "gold standard" peers.

A generation ago, the social geography of employment and lifelong learning beyond school was very different. Prior to the 1980s, Scotland's major industrial and mining areas offered many young Scots with no "Higher" aspirations a clear, well-understood route directly into a job with high cultural status, as part of a stable community of work in which one could learn how to live.

More than 30 years on, while there are diverse opportunities in our post- industrial communities, the pathways from school are neither clear nor accessible to those with lower levels of school qualifications. Moreover, many of the most disadvantaged families lack the networks and social knowledge to understand or chart a path through this confusing territory.

In other Northern European countries, albeit in different ways in Germany and Finland, for example, there are well-designed and socially esteemed post-15 learning progression routes for all. There was an opportunity under CfE for Scotland to design a "senior phase" that would give every child a valued progression beyond their "broad general education". Unfortunately, at the moment, this new curriculum, like the old, still gives the best deal to those aiming for Higher, with a progressively smaller "trickle down" advantage to those less academically successful.

No amount of excellent pedagogy will sort this. Scotland needs clear, high-status pathways for all its youngsters.

This is not a task for one teacher, or one school. It is a task for the whole civic community: local authorities, FE and HE, national government, employers, the voluntary sector.

Since 1996, our multi-purpose local authorities have conceptualised their functions as "services". This incomplete "silo" thinking does not help. Education is more than a service. It is a social process - a shared project to which the entire community should contribute.

Our failure to develop the potential of a significant number of our young people is arguably the most significant challenge Scotland faces, whether part of the UK or not. It is not too late for us to mobilise the community as a whole - schools, colleges, employers, voluntary sector and families - to respond to the challenge of the young people who are "left behind".

A good starting point is to identify the correct problem. The design of a post-15 curriculum for those who will never achieve Higher is a social task involving much more than "teacher flexibility". It needs civic leadership at all levels.

Daniel Murphy, Former headteacher

Daniel Murphy is a senior teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

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