STUDENTS in further education colleges have expressed overall satisfaction with Higher Still courses and staff are more positive about the changes than their school colleagues, a new survey has found.
But the investigation carried out by the Scottish Further Education Unit and the Higher Still Development Unit, based on returns from 34 of the 47 colleges, also uncovered fears that the programme was too "school-centred" which could put adult learners off. The heavy assessment load was also criticised.
Although there were familiar complaints about the late arrival of materials and dearth of information, colleges pointed out that the survey date in January was just six months into the start of the programme when shortage of material was at its height.
John Young, director of research and development at the SFEU, agreed it was "early days to draw any definitive conclusions, but the early messages from our students are encouraging". In broad terms, 72 per cent of the 650 students who responded were happy with their Higher Still programme or course.
Most colleges had gone for a modest start, with 60 per cent offering between one and 10 new courses, 20 per cent offering 11-20 and 20 per cent offering 21 or more. There was a tentative uptake of Scottish Group Awards (SGA), mainly influenced by the pace of the information arriving in colleges. Full information on these had in some cases only arrived at the start of this session.
Fifty per cent of colleges offered just one SGA, 42 per cent offered between two and six SGAs, and
8 per cent offered seven SGAs. The vast majority of colleges indicated only a "moderate" increase was planned for this provision in the next academic year.
Colleges want more flexibility with SGAs which they say do not allow students to take some National Certificate courses that have been tailored to meet the demands of industry. Some specialist areas of the FE curriculum now have no satisfactory replacement because the new courses are too academic and school-oriented.
The delays in materials and information forced many colleges to scale down their early plans. A number of college subjects were postponed to the second phase of the programme, which means that course specifications and limited support materials are only now becoming available.
This slow pace means staff development, which is already proving a costly addition to colege budgets, will have to continue for longer than envisaged.
Reservations were expressed over the planning and management of assessment, with many students having difficulties with the national assessment bank items at the end of the first teaching block. However, this was recognised as a planning and timing problem to be overcome in the light of experience rather than a result of materials being flawed.
There are still some difficulties in using the new framework to deal with evening classes and distance learning, which colleges are not confident can be easily resolved.
Lecturers' main concern remains assessment. At a seminar to discuss the report Ian Hay, senior lecturer at Jewel and Esk Valley College, said that "the planning of assessment and the setting and marking of prelims was more difficult and time-consuming than we had anticipated.
"There is also a worry over the time taken and the processes for estimating after the prelims, given the limited experience most staff have of this work. The very tight deadlines for submission of information initially given by the Scottish Qualifications Authority added to the pressure."
Once staff received the materials, they were pleased with the quality. Most colleges reported that they had used the national assessment bank items with little or no amendment. After many years of developing their own materials, lecturers seemed to appreciate the support.
But they are concerned that the reintroduction of external assessment might cause difficulties for some adults and school-leavers who have not been successful in exams at school.
Overall, however, the colleges were very positive, according to the report. They regard the Higher Still programme as "suited to the aim of lifelong learning through accumulation of credit and greater inclusion. Progression routes from school to college should improve. It provides good opportunities for colleges to develop innovative programmes for adults of all ages and with a wide range of needs.
"The development programme has brought together vocational and academic subjects and improved the status of vocational subjects. From clients' point of view, there is evidence of clear national standards. It provides for more coherence in programme design - students can see a closer link between units than in the past. In general, opportunities for progression are improved."