Judith Gillespie argues that Higher Still is essential to a progressive education system.
Unless you are Mystic Meg, predicting the future, beyond saying it will be different from today, is a pretty risky business. However, there are certain trends which are powerful indicators of the way things are likely to go. There is, for instance, the whole information technology revolution which, it has been suggested, is as significant as the Industrial Revolution was, and which will lead to the same kinds of permanent changes in society. But it is seen as different from the Industrial Revolution in that it will lead to an absolute decline in jobs, a notion borne out by the decline in the numbers involved not only in the financial sectors but also in manufacturing industries. For his part, the current economic guru and Observer editor Will Hutton sees this decline as similar to the absolute decline in those involved in agriculture during the last century.
Just when we begin to think the future is certain and is going to be dominated by IT, something like BSE comes along and requires us to rethink our love affair with technology. Suddenly, old traditional "organic" methods of farming seem very attractive. Similarly it would seem the age of the car is beginning to pass and the smart money should go on the bicycle, while even those temples to the consumerist eighties, the shopping malls, are beginning to lose their dominant appeal and there is a drift back to the local shops. How, then, can anyone who is charged with designing a curriculum for the next century take account of these conflicting trends, while answering the very real and immediate problems in schools today?
In some respects, the immediate problems are the most pressing and the easiest to satisfy. They arise from the success of Standard grade. More and more youngsters are coming through fourth year with highly commendable qualifications. The trouble is, for the majority, they are not quite good enough to take the gold standard of five Highers, although most are required to do five subjects. But the alternative to Highers are perceived - and we have all learnt recently how important perceptions are - as second best.
In looking at Higher Still, too much energy has been focused on the "five Highers in fifth year" option and too little on what will be the reality for most pupils. For them, the trick has been to put in courses and qualifications that match their abilities and yet have the same credibility as Highers. As lowering the standard of the Higher was never an option, the solution has been to borrow the idea of multi-levels from Standard grade. Under the new Higher Still programme, the pupil who takes up fewer than five Highers will make up the other subjects from courses which have the same rigour, the same external assessment and so the same legitimacy as the Higher courses but which are at a more appropriate level.
The likely success of this proposal can be seen by the increasing popularity of the existing "two-year" Higher courses in subjects like English and maths. When these options were first introduced, they were regarded with suspicion, but now they are adopted as positive alternatives. However, at present the "two-year Higher" is only available in a few subjects and the pupil who is interested in science, but does not get Credit level band one passes, is unlikely to find, say, a physics course to meet their interests and abilities. Under the new programme such a course will be available, and maybe those youngsters who currently fight to do the one-year Higher, only to fail, will in future be persuaded to take the slower route through Intermediate 2 to the desired Higher pass.
So, if the different levels offer a solution to the present problem, how does the proposal deal with the uncertainty of the future? At present we have university expansion predicated on a belief that we need more engineers, although it would seem such graduates are as likely as any others to end up working in Burger King whereas the big jobs growth area is in sport and leisure.
We need to be more adventurous and more flexible in what we teach, not set our targets to meet yesterday's shortfalls. New subjects will continue to be required just as new subjects such as modern studies, craft technology and design, or computing studies have come on the scene since today's parents were at school. But respectability and acceptance of new subjects, particularly by parents and pupils, come from bringing them within the same general framework and giving them the same rigour of external assessment as the more traditional subjects, while recognising that their nature may require different forms of external assessment.
But then who could imagine a satisfactory music course which did not assess playing ability? Again, the likely success of this approach can be seen from the willingness of pupils to take up subjects like music, art or, more recently, physical education along with more traditional academic subjects. One could imagine the enormous appeal of a series of courses in first aid, leading to "Advanced Higher Paramedicine", which would almost certainly be oversubscribed the minute it was introduced.
Of course, there are problems in introducing a new programme and these cannot be minimised. There is the legitimate weariness of teachers who have been at the forefront of introducing a whole series of new courses from vocational qualifications to revised Highers in recent years. There is the psychological disaffection of teachers who feel they have been under constant attack over standards.
There is the universal problem of inadequate funding which has become particularly acute this year. There is the general scepticism of anything coming out of this Government, the legitimate questioning of the validity of the core skills and of the need to introduce everything in the form of units, the problems of multi-level teaching and of small schools. Yes, there is plenty to argue over and debate, but criticism of the detail should not let us lose sight of the vision of the concept.
I am an unashamed enthusiast for the concept while cheerfully joining others in voicing criticism of the detail, but it says much for the development programme that it is taking on board these detailed criticism. Of course, resources will lie at the heart of its success, and it is important to get the development right so that the case for proper resources for implementation can be argued more forcefully. Moreover, the programme should not be judged a failure if individual schools only deliver part of it.
The joy of what is proposed is precisely that it offers a blueprint which schools can move around in, and from which they can adopt those parts which best suit their pupils. However, they can return to it and adopt different parts as their needs change, for it has sufficient flexibility to allow for this. The concept of Higher Still does indeed both answer the needs of today's pupils and yet have within it the flexibility and scope to adapt to a future as yet unknown. Now let us get the details right.
Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, is a member of the Scottish Office Higher Still strategy group. She writes in a personal capacity.