Major advance or a step back?

5th December 1997 at 00:00
It is being proposed that sixth-year colleges should be set upto teach the new Advanced Higher courses. Judith Gillespie looks at the arguments for and against such a system

What are the main arguments in favour of sixth-year colleges?

There's no doubt they'd be cost-effective, efficient and offer students a far better choice of subjects and courses than the current system. At present only a few students, even in the most academic schools, reach this post-Highers stage, and classes are tiny. Schools can only afford to put on a very limited number of subjects and an even more limited range of choices. Pupils often have to go to neighbouring schools for some of their subjects. However, the economies of scale resulting from pooling resources in a single college would mean more courses and more options, all under the one roof, for the same cost - a much better deal all round.

But won't sixth-year colleges be elitist?

Only if you regard the existence of post-Highers courses as elitist. In fact, colleges would provide a more equal opportunity to all pupils than the present system. Currently only pupils at the largest academic schools have a chance to do post-Highers courses at their own schools.

Pupils from smaller schools - where so few reach this stage that the schools simply cannot afford to run any courses - have to go elsewhere, a process they often find so uncomfortable they simply don't bother. The sixth-year college would offer everyone an equal chance to start afresh on neutral territory and, in that sense, would be more egalitarian.

At present many students stop bothering with sixth-year work once they get unconditional university offers based on their Higher results. This means resources that individual schools have devoted to teaching them are effectively wasted. How will colleges improve this situation?

The first safeguard would be authoritarian. Continuing participation in the college would be made dependent on good attendance. However, pupils are likely to find being part of a larger group much more stimulating and challenging, and will be encouraged to keep going by the resulting competition. Moreover, because the students will be a relatively cohesive group, it will be easy to build in a series of support courses specifically tailored to their needs and interests which will also keep them involved.

Won't school staff miss the challenge of teaching post-Highers courses?

Not if the colleges are staffed by teachers from existing schools on a rotational basis. Teachers could use their time at the college for personal curriculum development - it would almost be as good as a sabbatical. Then, with batteries recharged, they could return to secondary schools, allowing someone else the opportunity to work at the college.

Moreover, focusing post-Highers work in colleges would make it much easier for university staff to get involved in curriculum development, and this could help build much-needed links between schools and university.

Well, it won't work in rural areas.

Many rural schools currently cannot run post-Highers courses because their pupil numbers make it uneconomic, and the existence of sixth-year colleges in towns won't make matters worse. However, it may well improve the situation if rural areas are twinned with colleges. Colleges could develop distance-learning materials for rural schools, offer staff development opportunities and even provide short residential courses to pupils from outlying districts, so that such pupils get the stimulus of working alongside others who are doing the same courses. The experience of residential music courses shows them to be very stimulating.

Won't the process damage secondary schools which have their sixth year creamed off?

Only those few pupils taking post-Highers courses would leave. Pupils doing only Highers would stay, even if they were in the sixth year. Moreover, such students would benefit by coming into their own and having the chance to take a lead in school activities. They would also avoid the knock-on effects of the "switched-off work'' ethos of the post-Highers group. Moreover, college students could continue to be associated with their former schools for team sports, orchestras and such like, and might even spend some time helping out with homework clubs to keep the links going.

As you describe it, the sixth-year college experience is going to be first rate for the pupils, but why should this group be so favoured? Why should youngsters be denied at least one good educational experience?

It will be open to all and, if it is seen to be that good, then it could well inspire youngsters lower down the school to work hard in order to secure their place. Moreover, because it would be cost-effective, it would release some much-needed funds for use in other areas of school life. All in all, sixth-year colleges offer exciting opportunities which should be explored further.

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