Still waiting

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Dearing's cautious approach may be right. Scotland's post-16 reform plan, Higher Still, is struggling to get off the ground reports Neil Munro, while in New Zealand Sarah Catherall discovers teachers have been overwhelmed by rapid change. Scotland has been wrestling with the post-16 conundrum since 1990 - even longer than England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sir Ron Dearing's tartan predecessor was Professor John Howie of the mathematics department at St Andrews University. Howie was not just an individual but a committee, set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland at the behest of the Scottish Examination Board. And, like all committees, it somewhat exceeded its remit.

Life began as a narrow attempt to reform the curriculum and assessment in the final two years of Scottish secondary education. The committee soon discovered this could not be done without substantial changes: to the pre-16 and post-school regimes and to the "gold standard" of the Higher.

Howie's proposals were in many ways similar to those subsequently produced by Sir Ron: two pathways, one academic and one vocational, were to be created out of modular courses, producing "parity of esteem". Howie shared Dearing's key objective of "unlocking the potential" for the non-academic majority in the upper secondary school.

But, following extensive consultation, the Scottish Office was forced to conclude that Howie's two pathways were overly complex: an edifice which would perpetuate existing divisions rather than produce parity of esteem. The Government opted instead for a unified post-16 curriculum and assessment framework known as Higher Still, the sort of option which Sir Ron explicitly avoided.

To date, these Scottish Office proposals have gained little more approval than Howie's original plans. They have not been to the taste of schools reeling from the effects of deep budget cuts and the new 5 to 14 programme - a major curriculum initiative affecting the first two secondary years.

The unified academic and vocational structure envisaged for Scotland has involved an ambitious overhaul of all 28 subjects across school and college courses; each is constructed at five levels of difficulty from access through two intermediate stages to Higher and Advanced Higher. Core skills are built in, although inter-personal skills and problem-solving are added to Dearing's more restricted list of "communication", numeracy and information technology.

The two examining bodies, the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, will be merged to form a new Scottish Qualifications Authority.

There is plenty of consensus in Scotland that the post-16 world needs revision. Some 80 per cent of 16-year-olds now stay on at school into fifth year and two-thirds of those carry on into the final sixth year. But one third of candidates got no Highers last year and more than half gained just one: the much-vaunted breadth of learning in the Scottish upper secondary is a chimera for the majority.

The evidence for change is therefore no less compelling in Scotland than it is south of the border. Yet despite the lengthy development phase, Higher Still has had a bumpier ride than the soft landing experienced by Dearing. Heads from the public and private sectors have combined with the education authorities and the unions, complaining that there are too few resources, too many changes, too much of a workload for teachers and too unrealistic a timescale (the new courses are intended to be introduced from 1998, a year's delay on the original proposals, and face a possible twelve months' further postponement under a Labour government).

Higher Still has also revealed more deep-seated educational objections. Course balance between vocational and academic elements has caused concern (particularly among the literary lobby in English); doubts have been raised as to whether smaller secondary schools can offer all subjects at all five levels; the deep attachment of Scotland to the comprehensive principle is felt to be under challenge; the complexities of the assessment proposals have been little understood or accepted; and the Advanced Higher is seen as a threat to the Scottish four-year honours degree.

For teachers, however, the most pressing concern can be summed up as follows: Edinburgh schools have just had their spending per pupil slashed from Pounds 69 to Pounds 50, and that is the war chest which is supposed to pay for the materials to develop the new courses.

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