Putting a figure on personal achievement
So much stir did last month's Audit Scotland report on school education cause that first minister Alex Salmond was forced to intervene during a parliamentary session on the subject.
The report will have made for unpleasant reading in more than one quarter. It states that local authority spending fell by 5 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2012-13, largely as a result of employing fewer staff.
It also finds that although overall performance has improved over the past 10 years against all 10 of the attainment measures examined by Audit Scotland, "significant variation" in attainment exists between individual councils, schools and groups of pupils. The report further highlights "a considerable gap between Scotland and the top-performing countries".
More than this, it shines a spotlight on something that was supposed to be at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence: wider pupil achievement. CfE, the report stresses, was meant to be about more than just teaching children to pass exams and gain academic qualifications. Its emphasis was supposed to be on developing children to be "successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens".
It is true that a range of experiences have in recent years become firm fixtures of school life around Scotland, from enterprise projects and outdoor learning to programmes such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. However, the report's authors say that the education sector has so far been largely unsuccessful in finding a coherent way to track and measure these wider achievements.
"Schools are beginning to target wider opportunities to those pupils who would benefit the most, but how this activity is recorded and monitored is variable," they state.
The report recommends that local authorities track how successful such projects are judged to be, "including the levels of pupil participation and the outcomes they achieve". They say this will "help councils to scrutinise performance and ensure resources are being used as efficiently as possible".
Barry Fisher, director of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scotland, welcomes this idea. "While there may be an understandable focus on financial analysis and analysis of attainment figures, I am pleased to see that this report talks positively about how achievement can be better measured," he says.
"There is no doubt that it is a challenge to capture some of this data but if achievement is to be the important element of CfE as it is presented in policy, then perhaps this is an area of work that should be more closely looked at."
His organisation is among the most popular in Scottish schools and participation in its programmes has shot to record levels. According to the most recent figures, 20,794 young people started a DofE programme in 2013-14 - an increase of 19 per cent on the previous year. The number of people who completed an award in 2013-14 rose by 31 per cent to 9,923. This means that at the end of March this year almost one in five of all 15-year-olds in Scotland was taking part in a DofE programme - and in some authorities this was as high as 25 per cent.
So if this is the kind of thing that CfE was supposed to promote, why are we so bad at measuring it?
John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, agrees that CfE has not so far been able to move the focus away from traditional qualifications. There is a need to develop "more creative, innovative, more teacher-led ways" of assessing the kinds of achievements that cannot simply be measured in a test, he says.
These thoughts are echoed by Ken Cunningham, vice-chair of Young Enterprise Scotland, who believes the work of his organisation needs to be more valued.
Some councils have made a conscious effort to set up programmes to trace a broad range of opportunities. Glasgow City Council, the local authority highlighted by Audit Scotland as having the lowest percentage of young people achieving a "positive destination" after school, has set up an Employability and Skills Partnership (ESP) team. This offers tailored employment-related learning opportunities such as work experience, mentoring and learning in different environments.
Maureen McKenna, director of education at the council, insists that the local authority has "always recognised the value of wider achievement, as is shown in our annual standards and quality report".
"Our ESP team actively promotes a range of partners to work with young people to extend their experiences, help them achieve additional accreditation and prepare them for the world of work," she says.
"Particularly noteworthy is the increase in the number of young people achieving sports leadership awards - we are now the largest accrediting authority in the UK. These wider opportunities increase young people's confidence and resilience, which raises attainment."
And many hope that change is on the horizon at a national level, too. Next month will mark the introduction of the much-anticipated senior-phase benchmarking tool, now known as "Insight". According to a spokeswoman for Education Scotland, the online tool will be used to "benchmark, analyse and compare a wider range of awards relating to performance in the senior phase", and will "support secondary schools and local authorities to jointly reflect on where improvements can be made as well as areas of success".
Audit Scotland says that work is ongoing to determine which programmes will be included, with its report saying: "The main criteria are that programmes are [Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework]-rated and fit in with CfE principles."
Aileen Ponton, chief executive of SCQF, says the partnership is "committed to supporting the recognition of pupil attainment of all types". She adds that during the past year the body has worked closely with the Scottish government on Insight to "ensure that it took account of the diversity of provision in the framework which may be attractive to pupils and schools".
Insight will now be measuring the Youth Achievement Awards, which recognise four levels of responsibility taken by young people aged 14-plus. According to Ponton, the Scottish government is also following up with the DofE in relation to its leadership award at SCQF level 5.
"It is still early days but we are sure that once schools and local authorities understand the diversity of what is available on the SCQF at appropriate levels, they will be able to broaden the offer to our young people in terms of formal and national recognition linked to the SCQF," she says.
"I think the tool is a significant step forward," says Craig Munro, director for education and children's services at Fife Council. "It will take a number of years to get right, but it is a sea change in thinking, which will give a more rounded view of school improvement."
A fine balancing act
But some wonder whether Insight is far-reaching enough to bring about the level of change required.
Cunningham of Young Enterprise Scotland acknowledges that an increasing number of wider achievement activities can now be valued in terms of the SCQF framework. His own body's programmes, for example, are designed to help young people achieve Scottish Qualifications Authority awards in enterprise and employability at SCQF levels 4 and 5.
However, he believes that this may lead to a situation where activities with a level attached to them are viewed as more important than others, simply because of their statistical value.
Some also argue that by being by its very nature limited to the senior phase of school education, the tool is unlikely to allow for longitudinal analysis of a pupil's journey through the early years of primary and secondary school, making it more difficult to track the success of educational initiatives.
The essence of the issue comes down to this: it is important to acknowledge young people's wider achievements in a more effective and coherent way, and to encourage them to participate in the activities for their own sake. But it is equally important to avoid turning these qualifications into, well, just another qualification. A very fine balancing act indeed.