The Higher Still reforms have extended "opportunity for all" but have not boosted attainment, according to a major in-depth analysis of their impact.
David Raffe, director of research at Moray House School of Education, which published its report yesterday (Thursday), said that a four-year investigation had produced no more than "a mixed verdict" on the success of the programme, one of the most hotly contested in Scottish education history.
"It has provided opportunity for all but this has not always led to attainment for all," Professor Raffe stated. "It has made Scottish education more inclusive and more coherent, but it has not fully achieved the unified system it aimed to create."
The big gainers, according to the research, have been pupils of lower and middle abilities who have stayed on after the age of 16 and who now have access to Intermediate and Access courses. These "are more worth while and have higher standing than the modules they replaced", the researchers suggest.
But the success story on attainment is not so clear-cut. "Students with poor Standard grades still have much lower pass rates in their post-16 courses than their better qualified peers - despite taking courses at levels matched to their Standard grade attainment," the report states.
This also proved to be the case at the next stage where students who took Intermediate 2 instead of Higher and then moved to Higher the following year "still had a lower success rate at Higher than those who progressed directly from Standard grade".
The report adds: "The aim of building a 'climbing frame' of learning opportunities, with flexible entry and exit points and flexible movement, has proved difficult to realise."
Another major claim for Higher Still, that it would introduce "parity of esteem" between academic and vocational subjects, also appears far from reality. The reform has had only a small effect on study choices and students who are better qualified continue to prefer academic subjects.
The changes have, however, encouraged substantially more collaboration between schools and FE, which will be given a further boost by the Scottish Executive's plans to extend vocational and specialist college courses to school pupils.
Professor Raffe accepts that the Higher Still changes are not yet complete and warns the Executive not to fall into the trap of assuming they can be left to settle in without a clear sense of direction. "One reason why the 2000 exams crisis had such an impact was that there was no clear and agreed vision of where Higher Still was going and why."
The authors continue: "A recurrent theme of our research has been the need for a shared vision and strategic leadership of a unified system. It cannot be left to run itself or to be shaped solely by the disaggregated decisions of students, institutions and end-users."
This major project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, was based on two surveys of all secondary schools and colleges in Scotland.
It also involved case studies in four secondaries and two colleges, as well as analysing exam data on candidates for National Qualifications.
The report noted significantly different approaches to Higher Still in schools and colleges, which made it even more difficult to build the unified system the programme's architects were striving for. By 2003, schools had substantially completed implementation whereas only half the colleges had done so. Colleges adapted provision rather than replaced it.
The unified ideal has also failed to be achieved in the assessment arrangements because schools based the changes on courses while college programmes consisted largely of units not grouped into courses. "Since only courses were externally assessed, this breached the Higher Still principle that all programmes should have a combination of external and internal assessment," the report states.
One early fear was that some schools would be more capable than others of offering the full repertoire of Higher Still courses. But the research found that Higher Still "has enhanced the comprehensive principle rather than undermined it. It has not led to an increased hierarchy among comprehensive schools but it has been used by all schools to deliver a more flexible curriculum for a diverse clientele."
leader 24 The Introduction of a Unified System of Post-Compulsory Education in Scotland. By David Raffe, Cathy Howieson and Teresa Tinklin.