Scotland has been debating the academic and vocational issue for the past 30 years, writes Geraldine Abrahams
IF THE integration of academic and vocational education is a relatively new concept in England and Wales, it has been alive and well, and written about, in Scotland for at least 30 years. That might suggest that the educationists and policy-makers south of the border could simply draw on the experience of their Scottish neighbours, but Douglas Weir (left), dean of the faculty of education at Strathclyde University, says it is necessary first to recognise and accept that there are philosophical differences between the two systems.
Professor Weir, who has studied the academic-vocational marriage for many years, says: "There are a couple of fundamentals to be addressed. The English curriculum is still too narrow in the senior stages. Many attempts have been made to break out of this notion that ability depends on narrowing down curriculumchoice to typically two or three A-level subjects. Everything we have done throughout this century has been based on the premise that up to 17 or 18 years of age there should be a breadth of experience typically represented by the gold standard of five Highers in the Scottish system.
"If the English system is going to make a success of merging the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, it must also tackle broadening the curriculum. That will be highly unpopular, I guess, with English universities, but looking across North America and northern Europe, the English system is very much out of step while the Scottish system is much more in the international mainstream."
The second fundamental issue, according to Professor Weir, is parity of esteem. Successful management of the academic-vocational merger in the Higher Still courses due to start in 1999 stems from the way that the former Scottish Vocational Education Council demonstrated a decade of quality and credibility in its courses. "It is because the SCOTVEC modules had become such an important and well-regarded part of the school curriculum that we were able to think about the merger in the first place. If the English system does not succeed in both fundamentals, then its merger is more an administrative convenience than a real integration of two traditions."
Not that the Scottish transition has been that simple. There was widespread criticism of the recommendations in the 1992 Howie Report, which suggested separating the two streams and giving them their own dedicated certificates. The Government rejected the notion of a "twin track".
"In the past," says Professor Weir, "we have disguised the clash of values between the academic and vocational traditions, through fudging common certification, for example, but this time with Higher Still we are trying to merge what are essentially two different curricula, and we are adding to our problem because the curricula at present straddle the school and the FE sector.
"What we have is predominantly an intellectual problem and we have added to it a managerial problem. When we start Higher Still, we will be learning as we go. We will not have a finished product but there will be no guinea-pig attitude and I do not think there will be a generation of children who are disadvantaged.
"One of the reasons for that is that the curriculum units exist already in most cases and most of the material that is written into the Higher Still units already exists in SCE or SCOTVEC courses. They will be renamed and put into a different structural relationship with each other."
However difficult the process of integrating the curriculum, there is no going back. Even for young people destined for higher education - 45 per cent of the cohort - the need nowadays may be to replace a subject-based academic curriculum with one based on such core skills as literacy, numeracy, information technology, problem-solving and personal and interpersonal skills.
The focus of that general education could be a combination of a three-year general degree and a two-year qualification at diploma level, rather than the four-year honours degree. "One of the most successful economies in the world is the American economy and it does not seem to suffer by having mass higher education at the first degree level," says Professor Weir.
"I think we are heading towards a more North American system where many people are entitled to a basic undergraduate education with selectivity beyond that, reducing the proportion going into honours and Masters courses but offering more specialism at those stages and maintaining standards. If the Dearing proposals are implemented, there is likely to be a clear separation between the ordinary-general degree and the honours degree."
On the differences of approach north and south of the border, Professor Weir offers a conciliatory conclusion: "It is not for us to tell the English how to merge their system or vice versa, but by listening to each other we may pick up some good ideas.
"There has to be a recognition that there are at least two different economic cultures - one in England and one in Scotland - and that it is an economic issue we are facing in the next century, not a curriculum issue. The curricula can remain distinctive as long as each of them serves the needs of the UK economy - so vive la difference."