The Scottish Qualifications Authority has declared that the Scottish Group Awards - once seen as the potential jewel in the crown of the Higher Still reforms - are no longer viable. There is virtually no uptake in schools and low interest in the college sector.
John Young, the SQA's director of qualifications, has told centres that replacements for SGAs are being developed, focusing largely on vocational subjects.
These will take two forms - larger, fixed National Certificates, comprising around 12 units; and smaller, more flexible National Progression Awards, of around six units, which are modelled on the current Scottish Progression Awards which tend to be devised locally to reflect specific priorities.
The National Certificates and National Progression Awards are likely to develop the curriculum and training covered in the new Skills for Work courses, announced in A Curriculum for Excellence and currently being piloted with around 1,000 S3 and S4 pupils at Intermediate 1 and 2 levels, mainly through school-college partnerships.
Skills for Work courses do not include an externally assessed exam, relying instead on internal unit assessment.
Mr Young suggested that if these courses received a positive evaluation, there might be scope to extend that assessment approach to other areas - removing external exams from Intermediate 1 courses, for example.
"The SQA has not asked that question yet, but through the internal deliberations with the Scottish Executive and other stakeholders on A Curriculum for Excellence, we are open to thinking about alternatives that will better meet young people's needs in the longer term. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do some blue skies thinking."
It is intended that the new vocational awards will provide a better progression to Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs and HNDs) in the FE sector.
The announcement that these new vocational qualifications are being developed coincides with a decision by the SQA that certain low uptake National Courses are being removed.
While subjects such as Intermediate 1 and Advanced Higher classical Greek and Intermediate 2 Russian have been reprieved, pending the specialist review group decisions on A Curriculum for Excellence, a number of construction-related, forestry and hairdressing courses at various NQ levels are being dropped.
The fact that pupils are choosing not to take these courses at Intermediate or Higher levels, but still choose vocational training through other routes, will be seen as a sign that the aim to give academic and vocational subjects parity under the Higher Still reforms has failed, at least partially.
Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland and a member of the SQA board, said: "This was not necessarily a wrong thing to do within the environment of Higher Still. Bear in mind that the original blueprint for Higher Still was published in August 1994. Things do move on. The education and business community learns over time that changes will be driven by the marketplace."
Mr Young said that the opportunity to take Scottish Group Awards had only really been embraced at Access level and had proved too demanding for centres to run and students to attain at, for instance, Higher level. "For example, the Scottish Group Award at Higher level requires three Highers with units and course assessment. One of the purposes of these SGAs was to provide progression to HNC or HND, but these students do not necessarily have as many as three Highers or the equivalent," he said.
Loosely modelled on the baccalaureate-type qualification embedded in many European countries - and the failed recommendations by the Tomlinson inquiry in England, which would have replaced the A-level and GCSE system with a 14-19 diploma - the Scottish Group Awards required pupils to specialise in a specific area and ran counter to the generalist approach which has dominated Scottish education.