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Thumbs down for Higher Still

ALMOST every further education college in Scotland believes the new National Qualifications introduced by the Higher Still programme are too complex.

The second survey of Higher Still progress in the colleges reveals that 97 per cent believe that the programme "does not yet provide a simpler, more efficient system easily understood by students, parents, employers and higher education".

Virtually all the 45 colleges that ran Higher Still programmes took part in the survey, which was conducted by the Scottish Further Education Unit, the Higher Still Development Unit and the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University.

But John Young, director of research and development at the SFEU, cautioned against an over-simplified interpretation of "complexity". Mr Young asked:

"Are we talking about a desire for a simple system or a system which is fine-tuned and flexible enough to meet the needs of employers and students, schools and colleges, as well as providing progression into higher education?" He said: "Maybe it's not so much a matter of complexity as a reflection of the fact that we have not invested sufficient time and resource in explaining the system, and its inevitable complexities, to users."

The report warns colleges that if they want a simpler system, this "may be at odds with the colleges' desire for flexibility and fitness for purpose".

Iain Ovens, principal of Dundee College, who chairs the Higher Still implementation group for FE, believes none the less that the overall findings from the survey show "a generally satisfactory picture".

Mr Ovens said: "Steady progress is being made, with most colleges introducing the new National Qualifications gradually. It is also clear that, whle there is a wide range of views on what is and is not working, the overall level of support for the Higher Still framework remains strong."

Yet only two of the changes introduced by Higher Still found majority support in the colleges - the single curricular framework (62 per cent) and the emphasis on core skills (57 per cent). The five levels of Higher Still from Access to Advanced Higher was backed by 42 per cent, but 50 per cent were noncommittal and there was opposition or strong opposition from 23 per cent.

Sixty-three per cent wanted to see changes in the external exam arrangements, believing that diets are too inflexible and particularly unsuited for part-time students. Half the colleges also called for more support for internal assessment such as project-based courses and online assessment opportunities for students.

The difficulties with assessment point to a continuing feeling within FE that Higher Still is more geared to the needs of schools. Mr Young says colleges believe their needs, particularly in handling a highly heterogeneous group of students, including adults, part-timers, distance learners and evening class students.

Other aspects of Higher Still with which colleges are unhappy include the continuing lack of esteem for vocational subjects compared with academic studies and the need to give students marketable qualifications. Students also found some of the new courses too taxing in the view of more than half the colleges.

Colleges are happiest with the improvement in students' core skills, more appropriate levels for courses, the chance for students to achieve the highest level of attainment they are capable of and the creation of a unified curriculum and assessment system.

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