At the end of March, Scottish universities will publish a report that could prove critical to the successful transition between school and higher education of pupils pioneering Curriculum for Excellence.
A task group for Universities Scotland, chaired by Grant Jarvie, vice-principal of Stirling University, will make recommendations in two specific areas: how universities should adapt their admissions policies in the light of CfE; and whether they need to change their own learning and teaching strategies to match curriculum developments in schools and reforms of National Qualifications.
"Time will be tight," warned Sally Brown, the former deputy principal of Stirling University who has been appointed as a consultant.
Late last year, at an Edinburgh conference held by the Ucas admissions service, she warned that the senior phase of CfE and its associated qualifications were "less developed" than some areas of implementation.
Although universities support the ideas underpinning the new curriculum and qualifications, there are "several characteristics" of the developments and current practice in CfE that may cause "unease, uncertainty and anxiety", says Professor Brown.
No independent evaluation is being undertaken to assess the implementation or effectiveness of these changes in practice, she points out.
"Much current information is provisional, the programme for development of the senior phase and qualifications is (at best) concurrent with the work of the task group, and the essential increase in quality CPD offers a fragmented picture."
As a result of the uncertainty surrounding implementation of the new curriculum, universities may have to be "much more explicit" about what they expect and assume young people know or can do on arrival at university, suggests Professor Brown.
CfE places an emphasis on autonomy for local authorities, schools, teachers and pupils. That, she says, implies considerably more diversity across the school sector. Increased student choice and personalisation in CfE will mean greater variation in how qualifications are achieved in school.
Even before CfE is fully implemented at senior level, schools offering early presentation and more flexible curricula have encountered barriers to pupils seeking entry to high-tariff university courses (see case-study, page 14).
With some universities insisting on four or five top-grade Highers in a single sitting and, in certain cases, no two-year Highers, admissions criteria appear to be incompatible with a system that encourages schools to timetable S4-6 together, narrow subject choices to five in S4 (as opposed to the previous eight), bypass the new Nationals 4 and 5, and make two-year Highers the norm.
Some accuse the tail (the universities) of wagging the dog (the senior phase in schools). And while most recognise that the current mismatch is an unintended consequence of CfE's development, all agree that work needs to be done urgently to address the school-to-university problems it has created.
At the same time, education secretary Michael Russell has made it clear in a guidance letter to the Scottish Funding Council last month that the hike in university funding is dependent on universities delivering a number of outcomes, including more "accelerated degrees" - i.e. more direct entry to the second year of university from S6 of school - and getting more students into university from non-traditional backgrounds.
The government's vision of a more flexible "learner journey" includes: more direct entry to university from S5, after Highers; better articulation between FE Higher National Certificates and Diplomas and university degrees; and more three- year Honours degrees sitting alongside the traditional four-year degree.
In addition, Ucas is holding a consultation on its review of admissions procedures. If implemented, its proposals could have serious consequences for Scottish applicants by bringing the exam period forward, shortening both it and the time for marking, and requiring applications to be made by early July, leaving applicants significantly less time to receive advice from teachers (see panel, page 15).
School-leavers are not having an easy time, whether they are applying to college or university, says Mhairi Moore, a teacher for 32 years at Eastbank Academy in Glasgow and higher education co-ordinator for 20 years.
University applications have risen over the past two years, while the intake has been cut. The knock-on effect has been a ratcheting up of entry requirements by universities and next to no courses going through clearing, even from recruiting universities. Cardonald College last year received 15,000 applications for 2,000 places, while the University of Edinburgh received 11 applications for every one place, says Mrs Moore.
There is evidence of a drop in university applications this year, and universities are less likely to increase entry requirements in the course of the session.
But pupils are operating in a complex landscape, with universities exercising their right as autonomous institutions to set very different requirements. This makes it more difficult for schools to advise youngsters on which Highers and Advanced Highers to take, says Mrs Moore.
Some universities say it doesn't matter whether an applicant sits his or her Highers in S4, S5 or S6. Glasgow University, for its general courses, will accept Highers sat in S4 or S5 as equivalent to exams taken in a single sitting, arguing that pupils who can pass in S4 are exhibiting ability, so it would be unfair to penalise them. But it remains unclear whether this would count against a pupil applying to a course such as medicine, which traditionally requires five Highers in one sitting.
Some universities "double-count" Advanced Highers, while others do not. Glasgow, for example, will allow a pupil to count a Higher in English and an Advanced Higher in English as two separate qualifications. Others will not.
"Edinburgh is particularly anxious not to double-count - it wants to have breadth of learning," says Mrs Moore.
With resources very tight, many schools are being forced to cut back on the number of Advanced Highers they offer. One Eastbank Academy pupil with a conditional offer to study dentistry has to go to nearby Bannerman High to do Advanced Higher chemistry. Timetabling clashes at the start of term meant that he was missing four of the six periods per week of the Higher biology course he also needs to fulfil his conditional offer.
The school has now found a way for him to attend four periods of Higher biology a week and gives him extra tuition. That kind of scenario is replicated in many schools, Mrs Moore believes.
The University of St Andrews prefers applicants not to have two-year Highers, she says. A gap of two years between Standard grades or equivalent and subsequent Highers on a Ucas application form shows admissions officers where this has occurred.
Some of Mrs Moore's pupils rely on widening participation programmes, such as Focus West, to get them into university. Many are first-generation entrants to higher education and the hike in entry requirements has hit them particularly hard.
At Jordanhill School, on the other side of the city, going to university is the norm - 75 per cent of pupils go on to higher education, with 20 per cent going to high-tariff courses. That creates a different set of pressures for its head, Paul Thomson, but he shares many of Mrs Moore's concerns.
"The fundamental issue is that higher education needs to respond more quickly to the current evolution of Scottish education," he says.
"In the short term, it needs to respond to the changing pattern of pupil qualifications likely to emerge with Curriculum for Excellence, but it also needs to play a more proactive part in helping to map out coherent pathways for young people coming into FE and HE."
Some institutions have shifted their ground in recent years and are more likely to welcome Advanced Highers, Scottish Baccalaureates and two-year Highers, but many are still giving out mixed messages, says Dr Thomson.
"That makes it extremely difficult both to advise students as to what they should be doing in S6 and to write references for them when it comes to Ucas applications, as it appears that different institutions value different things."
Universities and schools need to work towards a framework that will be in place in two to three years' time, he argues.
"We can't afford to wait for candidates to start coming out of schools, having gone through revised Curriculum for Excellence structures, and then for universities to start thinking about how they are going to respond to candidates with a different pattern of qualifications."
The government's post-16 review raises the question, he says, of whether as a nation we can afford the luxury of having a sixth year in school for some young people. There is a need to differentiate between students entering university: on the same course you can find students who have gained four Bs in Highers taken over two years sitting next to others who have three Advanced Highers at good passes.
"The system seems to treat them all the same," he says. "We need to look for more sophisticated responses than direct entry to second year, which is something that not all pupils and parents want.
"As a country, we have to decide what the future of the four-year programme is. Is it for all students or some students?"
The most commonly advanced argument against direct entry to second year is that a lot of students lack the maturity and social aptitude for it; many need a first year to find their feet. Pushing more youngsters straight into second year without tackling such issues will, it is argued, create a higher rate of drop-out and that will not help universities to achieve the better retention rates that the education secretary is also demanding.
"Universities have to start thinking about what value they attach to the experiences pupils are having in S6," says Dr Thomson. "Otherwise it is a waste of time and resources. If we don't do that, economic imperatives will drive decisions, rather than rational thought."
Stats for 2011
300 - Ucas institutions offer 39,000 courses
697,000 - applicants make 2.7 million course choices
1.6 - million conditional and unconditional offers made
825,000 - offers regarded as insurance offers
417,000 - offers made pre-results
47,000 - places awarded post-results
7,000 - places awarded through Extra, the second tier of the applications process
300 - places awarded after adjustment - where applicant gets better results than expected
74% of UK applicants placed
54% of EU applicants placed
59% of non-EU applicants placed
CfE: flexibility with confusion
Last year, mixed messages about whether two-year Highers were considered as good as one forced the headteacher of Dunblane High, Frank Lennon, to reverse the school's policy on early presentation in S3 for Standard grades.
The case was a manifestation of the confusion surrounding university admissions policies when faced with the kind of flexible curriculum that is likely to emerge as Curriculum for Excellence becomes embedded in the senior phase.
At Dunblane last year, a number of S3 parents raised concerns that their children could be disadvantaged if applying to sought-after, high-tariff courses with two-year Highers rather than one. The father of one S3 pupil raised the issue with the admissions office for the University of Edinburgh's law faculty and was told originally that "Highers taken over two years will be given less credit than those taken in the traditional one-year format."
That statement was later contradicted, after enquiries by TESS, when a spokeswoman for the university said that Edinburgh took "no account of the length of time an applicant spends studying towards an individual school qualification".
But the seeds of doubt had been sown and Mr Lennon allowed six of his brightest pupils to opt out of sitting Standard grades in S3, so that they did not risk falling foul of guidance which might discriminate against two-year Highers.
This year, another S3 parent at the school has contacted three universities in an attempt to clarify their position on early presentation for Standard grades and two-year Highers. He was told by the University of Edinburgh: "Our admission processes do not distinguish between Standard grades taken in S3 and S4. There are currently no plans to alter this in future."
University of St Andrews: "We have no issue with the early presentation of Standard grades. The University of St Andrews looks for academic excellence - pupils who in one sitting get four or more Scottish Highers; we also look at achievement levels in Standard grades. There are occasionally issues with students who have presented early for Highers and who have not then at any point completed at least four in one sitting."
University of Glasgow: "Our admissions policy (in Scotland) is based entirely on attainment of SQA HigherAdvanced Higher results. HigherAdvanced Higher results are assessed for entry over two sittings. We regard Highers sat early (typically S4) and S5 as one sitting, recognising that only talented pupils will sit their Highers early and it could be unfair to count S4 and S5 as having `used their quota' of two sittings."
Mr Lennon told TESS: "Though these are helpful, there remains the concern that - as we discovered last year in relation to one university in particular - admissions officers might not speak for individual faculties."
In his eyes, the situation remains unresolved as long as universities do not have a mechanism which allows them to speak with one voice on admissions.
Paving a way to `post-qualification' application
From 2016, Ucas proposes that pupils should apply to university after receiving their exam results (post-qualifications applications):
- Scottish exams would have to start earlier in April and end within four to five weeks instead of seven, reducing the time available for teaching and learning;
- The Scottish Qualifications Authority would have to timetable more coincident exams and it would be harder for pupils to sit exams at different levels in the same year;
- Marking time would be cut from eight to four weeks;
- Scottish exam results would be released in early July, when school staff would be on holiday;
- Pupils would not have access to vital support in making applications.
The Ucas move was prompted by the fact that less than 10 per cent of applicants across the UK have three accurate predictions of the grades they actually achieve.
But in Scotland it is being described as a UK solution to an English problem, as 75 per cent of Scottish pupils know their Higher results when they apply to university.
SQA chief executive Janet Brown has already warned that moving to a PQA system, as set out by Ucas, would present logistical challenges for her organisation, while education secretary Michael Russell has told Ucas that the conclusions of its review would have to be "supportive of our direction of travel" and take full account of the differences that exist north and south of the border.
Ucas also wants to streamline a number of its other functions - for example, moving clearing to a central electronic system away from one where success can depend on whether an applicant gets through first by telephone.
It also plans to rebrand its current three stages for applications of Apply, Extra and Clearing to Apply 1, 2 and 3 and introduce automatic matching of results to offers, replacing the current manual operation which Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook has described as "using highlighter pens and Post-it notes".
Brian Cooklin, headteacher of Stonelaw High in Rutherglen, who represents School Leaders Scotland on higher education issues, explains that under Apply 1, pupils who already have their exam results can apply from September to June; under Apply 2, if they have been refused all their first choices, they can make an "extra" choice, if the course is still available; and under Apply 3, the 25 per cent of Scottish pupils who don't have their required grades until the end of S6 would have only one week between the end of June and the beginning of July to make a university application.
He warns that this system will disadvantage the very pupils who most need the support of school staff - those from non-traditional backgrounds.
Original headline: Task force investigates problems with CfE and university entry