Universities should change the way they operate to reflect curricular reform in schools, rather than schools always changing to meet universities’ demands, according to Scotland’s fair access commissioner.
Professor Sir Peter Scott also finds the “alleged mismatch” between Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and university admissions has been “exaggerated”, and that there is little evidence of CfE damaging the hopes of going to university of pupils from deprived backgrounds.
In his annual report published today, Sir Peter calls for universities to be more flexible in their entry requirements, and says: “My view is that the idea that there is some kind of culture clash between the CfE and the requirements of universities has been overstated and, to the extent that there is a clash, universities should adjust to what is happening in schools at least as much as schools should shape their curriculum to meet the needs of entry to university.”
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Sir Peter largely discounts certain arguments that schools pupils have suffered as a result of CfE reforms.
"There is little evidence that the Curriculum for Excellence has disadvantaged potential university applicants from deprived social backgrounds, despite the persistence of the attainment gap between young learners and between schools,” he says. “The broadening of experiences, which is the aim of CfE, should prepare young learners well for independent study at university.”
He notes that CfE is “unlike the English national curriculum” as it is “deliberately child-centred, and based on learner needs rather than the acquisition of qualifications”, and “emphasises interdisciplinary learning” all the way through the six years of secondary school. CfE also “encourages a more varied choice of subjects and experiences, vocational as well as academic”, and “allows pupils to acquire qualifications more flexibly across the senior phase rather than necessarily on an annual basis”.
Sir Peter addresses criticisms of CfE, one being “the potential reduction in courses in the senior phase, a politically contentious issue that may have generated more heat than light”, which critics fear “could lead to a narrowing of choices in higher education”.
He cautions that, while schools in more deprived areas may not be able to offer as many subjects as those in more affluent areas, “this should not be exaggerated”. He cites 2017 analysis that suggested schools in the least deprived areas offer 23 Higher subjects, while schools in the most deprived areas offer 17 – which, he said, is “still a considerable choice”.
Another concern he addresses is that “some universities have restrictions on when qualifications are acquired”, which is seen as being “at odds” with CfE’s philosophy that what matters is not, for example, how many Highers pupils sit in one sitting at S5, but “the overall achievement of pupils at the end of S6”.
However, Sir Peter also identifies “a counter-argument that by taking a more creative approach to the senior phase schools are better preparing young people for independent study in university by giving them a wider range of experiences”. He notes that approaches to learning in schools now often resemble that in universities, specifically “the promotion of problem-based learning and introduction of course elements on employability and even entrepreneurship”.
These are Sir Peter’s recommendations for better “alignment” between schools and universities, exactly as they are worded in the report:
*The wider responsibilities of schools should be recognised by universities which should avoid attitudes and actions that may, however unintentionally, suggest that other pathways followed by school leavers are ‘second best’. The aim should be to conceive of all these pathways as elements within a unified system of tertiary education and training.
*The relationship between secondary education and higher education should cease to be defined largely in terms of the assumed “deficits#” of schools in preparing young people for university entrance. In the spirit of contextual admissions universities should be more flexible in the Higher subjects they require and the number of Highers as well as grades.
*The differences between the senior phase of secondary education and university education in terms of the balance between skills acquisition and knowledge accumulation should not be exaggerated.
*There should be greater synergy between the senior phase of secondary education, especially S6, and the first year of university, with more university staff involved in particular with helping to deliver Advanced Highers.
*Although removing control of access and bridging programmes from universities would be undesirable, universities should move quickly to establish a more coherent and consistent network of these programmes.