The Government's Green Paper on university funding has started a fascinating debate about "the learner journey" or the time taken to progress from secondary schooling to graduation.
So far, the starting point of the journey has been seen as S5. However, given the continuing uncertainty over early presentation for exams, it might be more logical to look at a longer period, starting as soon as the learner first embarks on Standard grade courses. In other words, the learner journey may cover a period of eight years.
The motive for "compressing the learner journey" is straightforwardly financial. If money could be saved by getting students more quickly from the starting point to the destination, then the broader problem of meeting the cost of a mass higher education sector would be correspondingly diminished. This could be one of relatively few areas where worthwhile savings might be generated without serious adverse impact on service.
The issue of the learner journey has attracted keen interest in universities and further education colleges. In schools, however, the subject has barely been noticed. The future of the school sector - or at least of the secondary part of it - is, however, intimately involved.
Could more learners progress into higher education from S5? This, after all, used to be the most common pattern. Does the flexible but often unstructured curriculum that most learners encounter in S6 offer an opportunity for growing up and developing greater independence? Or does it simply represent a slackening of the pace? Is the supportive atmosphere of school unduly constraining or are 17-year-olds simply not ready to face the challenges and seductions of a student lifestyle?
Alternatively, should it be made easier to progress from S6 into the second year of university courses? What implications would this have for patterns of study in the final year at school? Would they be unduly influenced by the universities? Could schools offer all of the subjects involved or would university outreach be required? Could schools afford to offer more intensive teaching to small groups?
Ultimately, the discussion over the learner journey has its origins in the fact that the S6 in Scottish schools has no clear rationale. Students return for a final year in school for a variety of reasons. Some already have a good collection of Higher passes and are there to take their studies further through Advanced Higher courses. Others are hoping to improve their Higher or even Standard grade passes. Some probably have no clear goal in mind.
Offering the wide range of courses that tends to be requested in sixth year is a very expensive undertaking for schools. Groups are usually small. The resources used to service them are then not available to devote to other priorities in the school. Costs per head are very high.
Attempts have been made in the past to address this issue. Strathclyde Regional Council set up "area curriculum planning groups", linking several secondary schools and at least one further education college. The idea was that sophisticated timetabling arrangements would make it possible for learners to study outwith their own schools. Schools would maintain provision in core subjects but other courses would be run on a shared basis. These and similar later initiatives have met with only modest success.
A more radical solution would be to bring together the upper stages of several secondary schools into a separate senior school. Such an approach would undoubtedly reduce costs and increase choice. It might also create an ethos of greater intellectual challenge. These senior schools would work closely with FE colleges or could be merged with them. Such an approach seems tailor-made for medium-sized towns with three or four secondaries and a college. It would work well also in cities, but not in rural areas with sparse populations. However, Scottish education is arguably too homogeneous; creating different solutions for different geographical circumstances seems a reasonable approach.
Rethinking the learner journey could put all sectors of education under conflicting pressures. On the one hand, there are substantial incentives to collaborate. Students will have a reasonable expectation that schools, colleges and universities will subordinate their separate interests to ensuring that clear and well-supported pathways are available to them. Collaboration may help institutions to identify clear roles, perhaps by forming hubs or clusters with schools and colleges entering into formal relationships with a local university.
Hubs would carefully map the curricula they offered and then play to the differing strengths of the partners. Thus, university staff might offer philosophy to school-age learners while vocational subjects could be provided by a college.
On the other hand, there will certainly be competitive pressures. Which sector caters for the 1617-1920 age group most cheaply? Schools may feel confident but the comparison should be of fifthsixth year costs with FE college and early stages of university. The answer may be unexpected. Cost, of course, is not the only factor. The structures of Scottish education take for granted the kind of learning culture that is best suited to young people of various ages. These assumptions have been little questioned and never tested in a market environment.
The Green Paper has opened up an important field for discussion. The implications are potentially far-reaching. At the very least they will involve greater flexibility, creating new pathways into higher education. However, they may also bring about a process of far-reaching structural and organisational change.
Keir Bloomer, Education consultant.
Keir Bloomer is a director of the Tapestry Partnership.