Ron Tuck (below right) on the importance of a national qualifications framework
Earlier this month, the Scottish Minister for Education, Brian Wilson, announced his support for the introduction of a national qualifications framework for Scotland.
So why is a single qualifications framework desirable? First, to ensure continuity and progression. In an era of lifelong learning, it is important that learners should be able to build on previous achievement in a continuous and progressive way. The ability to progress should not be constrained by artificial barriers between different types of qualification.
Second, to create what has become known as "parity of esteem". Vocational qualifications have not enjoyed the same status as academic qualifications. A single qualifications framework based on a series of levels, with common approaches to assessment and certification, would help address this disparity.
And, finally, to simplify matters. The current range of qualifications, many of them relatively new, is not well understood by many people. A simple and coherent system capable of being described in plain English is needed.
In England and Wales, the qualifications system tends to be described in terms of three pathways: academic, general vocational or "applied", and vocational. In Scotland, the first two of these pathways are being integrated through the Higher Still reforms, due to come into effect from August 1999.
The effect of these reforms is that Highers, Certificate of Sixth Year Studies and National Certificate modules will become a single pathway embracing all post-16 school provision and a high proportion of programmes in further education colleges and other post-16 centres.
All qualifications (with the exception, for the time being, of Scottish Vocational Qualifications) will be placed on a series of levels, from Access, largely for students with learning difficulties, through Intermediate 1 and 2, for post-16 students not ready to progress immediately to Higher level, to Higher, the level of attainment required for entry to higher education, and Advanced Higher, a new level to stretch the most able students. The pre-higher-education levels flow into the subsequent levels of higher education. Discussion is ongoing concerning the creation of a single post-16 credit framework.
The system of levels should provide for continuity and progression in every subject area; students should be able to access a course at the right level for them, given their previous level of achievement. The levels system applies to all subjects. The Scottish Qualifications Authority's quality assurance system will ensure that all qualifications at the same level are broadly equivalent in level of difficulty.
The single Higher Still pathway introduces a common approach to assessment and certification. The system is unit-based with all units being written to a common format and awarded on the basis of internal assessment. Most learners, especially those studying full time, are expected to aim for courses or group awards.
Courses are qualifications comprising three units and an external assessment. The latter may take the form of an exam, externally assessed practical work or some combination, depending on the nature of the subject matter. Courses have always been the normal form of qualification in Scottish schools. However, the range of courses is now being extended to include most vocational subjects taught in FE. Many part-time FE students may wish to gain qualifications based on external assessment, because these course qualifications will have status in their own right.
Scottish Group Awards are qualifications made up of courses and units broadly equivalent to a year of full-time study, although the number of credits required is less at Access and Intermediate than at Higher or Advanced Higher. To gain a group award, the student must pass a set number of units and two or three external course assessments.
SGAs indicate that the student has succeeded in a coherent programme of study. They also show that the student has reached a certain overall level of attainment. Thus any SGA at Higher level will be broadly equivalent in its demands.
The equivalence of level of attainment includes set requirements for core skills attainment. The core skills in Scotland are communication, numeracy, information technology, problem-solving and working with others. Although free-standing core skill units are available, most learners are expected to gain certification through the usual subject range.
There will be one multi-purpose SGA at Access level and at Intermediate 1 level, but a range of named SGAs will be available at other levels, such as arts and social sciences.
Scottish Vocational Qualifications are the Scottish equivalent of National Vocational Qualifications. At present, they are linked to the rest of the Scottish qualifications framework, rather than being fully integrated into it.
SVQs are different from other Scottish qualifications in two respects: they are based on occupational levels rather than educational levels; and they do not use external assessment. The goal must be progressively to integrate SVQs into the framework, while retaining the characteristics which employers so value - they certificate job competence assessment in workplace conditions.
This qualifications framework is at an advanced design stage but remains to be implemented; there are sure to be challenges ahead in translating design into reality. However, it is an exciting agenda. The issues have also been identified by countries in every corner of the globe. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, will have something to contribute to this worldwide agenda.
* Ron Tuck is chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority