Higher calling: to step from safety into the future
There is immense potential in the Higher Still courses, particularly the way they are designed to impact on the core skills of communication, numeracy, problem solving, information technology and working with others", says Gerry Docherty, headteacher at Grangemouth High School. His school has been involved in doing implementation studies for the past three years and is now implementing the new Highers for real - like other Scottish secondaries.
But Mr Docherty also sounds a warning. "Whether we have the strength to see that potential through, I don't know. We've removed the safe and the sacred and replaced it by the unknown and - some would say - dubious. It's mentally exhausting and demanding and I wouldn't be surprised if some schools opt out of implementing the Advanced Higher next year, as it will certainly increase the pressure. We need to make the Higher secure before rushing into Advanced. The first year needs to be assessed. There will be teething problems throughout.
"Teachers are breaking their backs to make sure the pupils get there this year. By Christmas we had a sea of very tired faces among the staff. The first year was always going to be angst-ridden. It's very important that no pupils are disadvantaged and that teachers are listened to. A lot of problems are going to be solved on the classroom floor."
One strategy developed by senior management at Grangemouth, which seems a success, is its voluntary school implementation group, formed 18 months ago with members from management, guidance, learning support and principal and class teachers who meet at least monthly.
"It moved theory into practice and it has also saved time and effort. The idea that planning assessments would come in neat 40-hour blocks, for example, was blown out of the water when physics noted the first unit would take over 50 hours," says Mr Docherty.
"The need for flexibility became immediately apparent, as did the need to keep everyone informed. So principal teachers agreed to alert the depute to assessment times so we could do our best to keep pupils informed."
Another successful strategy was the emphasis the school put on the induction process - a preparatory week for pupils in June last year, the first two days of which were given over to a whole group approach on how the new system would work, how it might affect careers and how pupils were responsible for keeping their records and report sheets up to date.
The next two days were spent in departments developng individual pupil profiles and targets, with the Friday given over to a question and answer session.
"Every school would need at least a couple of days like this to ensure that pupils understand the essential elements of Higher Still and the level of responsibility we would expect them to accept," says Mr Docherty. Pupils were issued with diaryplanners (with a 16-page preface on how Higher Still works) which nearly all of them claim to use.
After almost a term's experience a survey showed that the three key things the pupils felt they had to do were study continuously, work harder and plan better. What pleased them most was passing assessments and the help given by teachers. What worried them was failing unit tests, the constant pressure, and fear of exam failure.
The school has also set up a helpful mentoring system in which half the staff, including management, class teachers and guidance, take part voluntarily, with each staff member responsible for at least four to six pupils.
Teacher and pupil anxiety levels have been high, especially as the pupils had to be "up and running" from day one. "But it can," says Mr Docherty, "be a good thing that pupils see the work they have to do at the start of the session rather than after prelims and many have commented favourably on this."
One big issue for Mr Docherty is core skills, which he says make Higher Still more than just a set of courses: "They suddenly appear out of the ether in Standard grade and to make sense of Higher Still they need to impact more overtly from day one in first year and perhaps even in primary."
Another problem is principal teachers acting as moderators.
"Being asked to surrender your principal teacher to moderate is entirely problematic," he says.
"They can be out of school for up to 15 days. If, for example, you've got four teachers moderating that's 60 days you lose."
One issue which the senior management feels is inadequately addressed across the Higher Still curriculum is "working with others". To offset this they organised a team-building weekend with S6 pupils at Lochgoilhead in Argyll and forwarded their assessment of it to the Higher Still Development Unit (HSDU).
Major headaches raised by principal teachers were HSDU exemplars in English which expected too much of pupils and caused a lot of worry, too much concentration on unit tests in maths which do not prepare pupils for final exams, and tight teaching or assessment schedules.
But the general feeling was that there is now more access to Highers for the vast majority of pupils and that they are more motivated to achieve as a result of the unit assessment and intermediate grades.