Enter Higher Still and the SQA

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Nigel Lawrie looks at the challenge of sustaining a democratic tradition.

Another school session is under way and with it a raft of developments. Among these, work will be continuing on Higher Still as we move ever closer to the scheduled start in 1998. Session 1996-97 will also see the emergence of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which will take over the existing functions of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council. This series commemorating the 500th anniversary of state education in Scotland gives us an opportunity to reflect on the past. What is the historical significance of Higher Still? Are there characteristics of the SEB and Scotvec, products of very different histories, which the new authority should seek to retain?

The intention of Higher Still is to provide appropriate pathways for every pupil in every subject post Standard grade. It opens up fifth and sixth year to pupils of all abilities. In a sense, Higher Still may be viewed as the final step in establishing a comprehensive school curriculum. Within such a curriculum, courses should be relevant, sustain interest and motivation and present challenging and realistic targets. Pupils should taste the fruits of success and no artificial barriers should block their way to further advancement. The provision of such a curriculum is essential if we place equal worth on all pupils.

In terms of valuing pupils equally our record as a nation is not a good one and progress in reaching where we are now has been slow and tortuous. For nearly four centuries following the 1496 Act, education for the vast majority consisted solely of the three Rs with only a select few advancing beyond this. The 1872 Act made education compulsory for children between the ages of five and 13 and thus established elementary education for all. In the following three decades the provision of secondary education expanded but economic necessity meant that few pupils attended beyond the age of 14.

By 1900, the assumption was very firmly established that pupils could, at the age of 12, be classified as "academic" or "non-academic". Indeed, it was further assumed that the former would be mainly middle class, destined for the professions, government and business while the latter would be, and would remain, working class.

This led to the division of pupils into three streams (upper, lower and intermediate) following quite distinct forms of secondary education. A suggestion in 1920 by an advisory committee that a proposed dual classification of children was too rigid met with a frosty reply from George Macdonald, the head of the Scottish Education Department. His response, quoted in Professor T C Smout's A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 (Collins 1986), is worth consideration as such thinking provided a barrier to equal opportunities over the next 40 years: "They have ignored the fundamental fact that the school population falls into two parts - the majority of distinctly limited intelligence, and an extremely important minority drawn from all ranks and classes who are capable of responding to a much more severe call . . . Education must be adapted to their capacities, and matters will not be helped by ignoring the difference between them."

Macdonald rejected the committee's view that "all save a few backward children are capable of profiting by the same kind of education". By 1940, a minority of pupils were attending senior secondary schools which provided five-year courses leading to the Leaving Certificate while junior secondary schools provided inferior three-year courses for the majority leading to nothing at all. This remained the pattern until the introduction of comprehensive education in the 1960s. Even then pupils were designated "certificate" and "non-certificate" at the end of the second year.

Many pupils left school at 15 (or, after 1972, at 16) with no certificate. Some followed SCE O grade courses with little success. The Munn report of 1977 noted "a disturbing increase in the number taking SCE courses which are unsuited to their needs and beyond their abilities, and which consequently breed frustration and resentment; whilst the lowest ability range of all is too often catered for in an improvised rather than a well planned curriculum. "

It was not until the introduction of Standard grade, proposed by the Munn and Dunning reports of 1977 but regretfully not fully implemented until the early 1990s, that a comprehensive curriculum and assessment system was finally installed for third and fourth year within Scottish secondary schools. Higher Still has provided the impetus for the move to a single examination body and the arguments for bringing the SEB and Scotvec together were overwhelming. The unified curriculum and assessment system for Higher Still can be developed more easily and it seemed unlikely that parity of esteem between vocational and academic courses could be promoted without a single, coherent award system.

The new authority will wish to retain the best characteristics. The SEB and its predecessor, set up in 1964, have successfully administered a range of awards. Henry Philip in A Short History of National School Certificates in Scotland (SEB, 1994) characterises the work of the SEB with two words: "efficiency" and "humanity". I think all would concur with this description. Indeed, the board's efficiency and high standards of quality control and assurance have been confirmed by external audit. Humanity, the valuing of individual candidates, has been demonstrated in a variety of ways: appeals, the weight given to internal assessment and teachers' estimates, borderline scrutinies, adverse circumstances, candidates with special educational needs.

Scotvec has emerged over the past 11 years as a powerful, competitive organisation offering a wide range of modular qualifications at different levels to people in schools, colleges, training centres and at work. It has shown itself to be extremely thorough in its approach and has an excellent track record of rapidly responding to the needs of an ever widening range of customers.

Both the SEB and Scotvec enjoy major strengths which should be taken forward into the new organisation. Inevitably, the SQA will encounter economic constraints but justice to individual candidates should remain paramount.

With Higher Still in place, we shall have a comprehensive curriculum from first to sixth year. The SQA will certificate all attainment outwith the university sector. Access is forever improving, but how will these various awards be viewed? Parity of esteem? Of equal worth? Decidedly "academic" or "non-academic"? Many sections of society, are, I regret, conditioned by some of the history referred to earlier in this article. As a nation, we still place a disproportionate value on those courses and qualifications which involve the pursuit of academic study and are appropriate for the few. We must learn to place a higher value and status on those areas of education which enhance our nation by making a contribution to the strengthening of social institutions, of communities and business enterprise.

* Next week: Alistair Grant, chairman of Safeways.

Nigel Lawrie, headteacher of Pat Glasgow High, chairs the education committee of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

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