Efforts to bring equal status to academic and vocational courses have failed, says chief executive. Neil Munro reports.
The head of the Scottish Qualifications Authority has admitted that the attempt to bring academic and vocational courses together, in an effort to forge "parity of esteem," has not worked.
Anton Colella, the SQA's chief executive, said this was "a worthy ambition" of the Higher Still programme, but the take-up of vocational courses had been disappointing.
In an address to a conference last week on work-based learning, he continued: "Why? Did we over-academicise practical subjects, introducing assessment rigour, which is important of course, to give them esteem - and in the process undermine the product and the young person's core experience?
"I would argue that, potentially, that has been the case."
Mr Colella said the new courses now being devised to develop "skills for work" under the Executive's curriculum plans must avoid these mistakes. The courses for 14 to 16-year-olds initially will be in construction, the early years, sport and leisure and the financial services. Piloting will begin next year, after the SQA has developed new forms of assessment for them.
Mr Colella told the conference that the intention is to make them as practical as possible, based on real occupational standards and on giving pupils a genuine experience. "It's not about shoehorning young people into specific jobs," he said. "They will have access to the regular curriculum as well."
Confessing that he wished he had been been able to develop construction skills while at school, the SQA chief insisted the new courses "must be attractive to academic youngsters as well as to those who do not see themselves going on to higher education".
John Brown, the head of Peebles High, said his school, regarded as academically successful, had received 67 applications for 20 places on its new construction course out of a possible 200 in the year group. "So it's not all gloom and doom," he said.
But Mr Brown reinforced the importance of developing vocational courses for academic youngsters as well as for those they have been traditionally aimed at in the past. "Is that the intention?" he asked.
He received a one-word answer from Mr Colella: "Yes."
Bernard McLeary, chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland, said they had consulted directors of education on this matter and he believed it was the clear intention of the authorities to develop skills for work courses in that way.
Tom Kelly, the chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, urged renewed emphasis on work-based learning. "Scotland is unique in western and northern Europe in having very high levels of participation in higher education but very low rates of qualifications and attainment for those not in higher education.
"If there is a productivity gap, it is in the attainment levels among those with low skills."
Mark Batho, the head of the Executive's lifelong learning group, acknowledged it had its work cut out to ensure people were aware of how all the various initiatives for learners fitted together.
He suggested work-based learning could be the key to lifelong learning in the future. "I suspect that the effects of top-up tuition fees in England and the levels of debt that students have to accumulate nowadays may lead more people to postpone their participation in higher education until they have established themselves in a career, and then undertake their HE studies through work-based learning."