The struggle to revive the ‘faltering’ Baccalaureate

26th February 2016 at 00:00
Government set to release proposals to ‘develop’ programme as uptake plummets

The government is drawing up urgent proposals to save the Scottish Baccalaureate as interest in the flagship qualification spirals downwards, TESS can reveal.

It aims to publish plans within weeks after a review into the decline of the Baccalaureate. The qualification, available in science, social sciences, expressive arts and languages, was designed to encourage the type of independent learning demanded in universities.

Analysis by TESS (see figures, opposite) has found that only 99 students passed the Baccalaureate in 2015, after a high of 165 in 2013. Interest has plummeted in the independent sector, which had eight candidates in 2015.

The SQA’s enthusiasm for the qualification appears to have waned, with union leaders remarking that little has been done to promote it recently. The SQA declined to be interviewed by TESS and, despite having set schools a November deadline for registering candidates, would not indicate how many students were taking the qualification this year.

‘Distinctive’ qualification

The government, however, is not considering scrapping the Baccalaureate and has been reviewing how it could be “developed”, with plans due to be published before Easter.

The commitment to a Scottish Baccalaureate was part of the SNP’s manifesto when it came into power in 2007. It was designed to encourage more pupils to study science and languages deep into secondary school, raise the status of S6 and help leavers make the transition into higher and further education or employment.

A spokesman said: “The Baccalaureate has a distinctive place in the qualifications available in Scotland and it will continue to be available to pupils.”

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said: “There is no doubt that the Baccalaureate is faltering and numbers are dropping away.” He suggested that it had been given “little credit” by universities.

Even before the Baccalaureate’s inaugural year in 2009-10 – when 100 schools were said to have expressed an interest in running it – there was speculation that it would be shunned by universities because, unlike the Higher, it wasn’t available to all pupils.

In university admissions body Ucas’ guidelines for 2017 applications, no tariff points for the overall Baccalaureate are offered. Instead, it gives points for its individual components. Even a Grade D at Advanced Higher is given more points than the Baccalaureate’s most distinctive feature, the interdisciplinary project (see figures, opposite).

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said that the Baccalaureate was “quite demanding, and perhaps successful achievement deserves greater celebration”.

Universities Scotland director Alastair Sim said that universities did “value the Scottish Baccalaureate and the opportunities that it provides to study subjects across a particular discipline in depth”.

He conceded, however, that universities still used the Higher to set entry requirements. University of Glasgow guidance describes the Baccalaureate as “hugely beneficial”, but stresses that, since it is not available to all pupils, allowing it greater weight could “discriminate between applicants”.

Unequal access

The EIS teaching union said that financial pressures meant that schools were struggling to offer Highers and Advanced Highers, let alone the Baccalaureate, even if it did have “sound educational grounds”. General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “It simply hasn’t been possible to offer equality of access to the programme, and accordingly it hasn’t gained any real purchase across the senior phase.”

Mike Corbett, a national executive member of the NASUWT Scotland teaching union, said: “Teachers do not trust the SQA to provide sufficient support and exemplification. The Baccalaureate is a good idea in principle but there is no chance of it taking off until teachers have more time to devote to its development.”

Mr Duncan said that there had been “a lot of interest” back in 2010-11, but added that he was “not aware of the Scottish Baccalaureate getting a lot of promotional publicity recently”, adding that “quite a lot” of pages in the SQA website’s Baccalaureate section were “dead”.

“This leads me to conclude that, like everyone else, the SQA has been focusing instead on the tremendous effort required to get the new exams out,” he said.

An SQA spokesman insisted: “We continue to work with schools, colleges and local authorities to promote the enhanced skills that [the Baccalaureate] aims to develop”.

The Baccalaureate was originally available in science or languages. In 2012, the Scottish government announced another two strands, in expressive arts and social sciences, and education secretary Michael Russell spoke of “considerable and growing interest” in the qualification among universities.

There was a small spike in numbers in 2012-13 – although only five students took the expressive arts option – but they have been dropping ever since.

Gillian Campbell-Thow, Glasgow’s lead officer for languages, said that entry numbers for the languages Baccalaureate were “significantly down” in Scotland’s biggest city. But even in those schools that struggled to offer multiple languages at Advanced Higher, she added, there still might be a saving grace: some ran interdisciplinary projects without offering the full Baccalaureate.


Case study: the school

Mackie Academy in Stonehaven is one of the Baccalaureate’s most enthusiastic backers, having presented pupils for the languages version every year since it started in 2009-10.

At a major SQA conference on the Baccalaureate in 2012, S6 pupil Molly Butler told how her confidence had rocketed when she carried out a survey of passers-by in Venice for her interdisciplinary project, despite having started Italian only as a crash Higher.

This year the Aberdeenshire school has four pupils taking the languages Baccalaureate, who have independently organised research visits to France, Germany and Italy. Sue Smith, principal teacher of modern languages, says: “I have seen pupils mature and grow in confidence enormously because of their Baccalaureate studies and I know that they have all found it invaluable.”

The Mackie pupils’ projects explore differing views on immigration; how education systems can boost economic development; whether cost or quality is most important for food shoppers; and the impact of language learning in different countries.

Case study: the university

Since 2009, Dundee’s Abertay University has helped pupils with their interdisciplinary projects for the science Baccalaureate. Scott Cameron, a biomedical sciences lecturer, says that pupils get access to experts they would not otherwise have, as well as to the university’s library and laboratories.

“It allows for personal development and skills development such as planning, taking the initiative, communication, independent learning and responsibility that develop over time and are difficult to achieve in traditional didactic secondary school teaching,” he says.

Pupils have examined the chemistry, biology and economics behind cancer drugs, and Dr Cameron believes that this ability to work across disciplines is increasingly valued by employers.

The Baccalaureate improves teachers’ and academics’ understanding of what their counterparts do, he adds, and smooths the notoriously tricky transition between school and university.

Dr Cameron would like to see evidence gathered on how the skills gained affect future studies or employment, as this could drive interest in the qualification.

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