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Thinking inside the box

The media coverage before and after the recent debate in the Scottish Parliament on what Scotland's new qualifications should deliver majored on negative opinions and concerns about delivery - rather than underlining the national consensus that something major needs to be done to improve learning for students in Scotland's schools. New qualifications are a vital part of this - if assessment really is for learning.

To many people, it will seem odd that a college principal is responding on this issue, but thousands of adults and younger students in college will be affected, as well as those in school. To give an idea of the scale of college involvement, 35 per cent of all Scotland's 17-year-olds are studying in college rather than school.

As lead principal for A Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland's colleges, I believe we all need to be part of moving this forward, if:

- additional year groups are not to emerge from school lacking the skills they need to manage in the world of work;

- the tens of thousands of 17 and 18-year-olds in college and adult students are not to be denied the chance of taking up-to-date qualifications in a coherent framework; and

- as a result, our economy is not to suffer.

The underlying cross-party consensus in the parliamentary debate on National Qualifications last month emphasised this.

Major change is never easy, and being concerned about having to do it is natural. However, those people (including parents) trying to get their heads round the concepts of ACfE and how we might also use assessment for learning need only look at what is happening in Scotland's colleges to see that what is planned is manageable.

Lecturers deliver the knowledge and skills needed by students to prepare them for work and for particular jobs. These are available not only for young students but for adults in work and making job transitions. Lecturers are used to working from an outline that tells them where the students need to be to gain a qualification, and often work without learning support materials and exemplars that have been standard for delivering Standard grades, Intermediates and Highers.

The resulting qualifications do not differ across the country, as HMIE and the Scottish Qualifications Authority inspect and verify all colleges to ensure consistency and quality of learning and administration of assessment (including qualifications).

For Scotland's colleges, the new curriculum and associated qualifications are not a "box" outside which we have to think. It is a box into which our practice fits comfortably.

Scotland's colleges would be happy to work with their partner secondaries, perhaps through joint CPD, as the schools begin to apply the same techniques to learning under ACfE. Colleges, too, are a reservoir of expertise for learning support, alternative learning and teaching techniques and qualification development. It is not well known that academics write many of SQA's qualifications and that colleges, like universities, have powers to write and certificate their own qualifications. They hope the different expertise they can bring will be actively used as the new National Qualifications are developed.

If we give true parity to applied and "academic" learning, recognise that different learning styles suit some individuals better than others, use the expertise in our colleges and accept that everyone has to contribute to creating real lifelong learning, we can develop the learning system Scotland needs. This is not only to help its people through the economic downturn and recovery, but also to contribute to that recovery.

Scotland's colleges are key to the successful implementation of ACfE and every one of them stands ready to support it.

Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College in Glasgow.

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