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What about Advanced Highers?

Pressured teachers who have not yet given enough thought to the new Highers have certainly not worked out a strategy for teaching Advanced Higher as well. That is because under the development programme the first Advanced Highers will not be sat until 2000 and because there is increasing hope that the whole project will be reviewed by an incoming Labour government.

Teachers are no different from politicians. Their time-frame is short. In the one case it is determined by the date of the next election, in the other by the more immediate demands of other changes in the pipeline, such as the secondary implications of 5-14. But the problem of what to do with the Scottish sixth year will not go away by being ignored, and the structure of the Higher Still programme, as opposed to its timing, is unlikely to be radically altered.

Higher education holds the key. The Government did not want to dictate to universities because it wanted the market to determine the benchmark for entry to institutions and faculties within them and because active promotion of Advanced Higher would have put in question the four-year honours degree. The result is that universities and colleges are badgered for decisions they do also do not want to make.

As a group the members of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals have elected to stick by Highers. That means that first-year courses should start at that level regardless of the number of students with Advanced Highers or A-levels. In practice, the universities, like the schools, do not want either very young entrants straight from S5 or those for whom S6 was a wasted year in which they got out of the study habit.

To ignore Advanced Higher as a benchmark for entry would be to reduce it to the castrato status of the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies and to arrive back at where the Howie committee started its deliberations. Popular faculties in the most sought after universities need to discriminate among well qualified candidates. They will want to use Advanced Higher, and this week's statement from the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (page three) recognises that desire.

The resulting onus falls on schools. Those with large numbers of able S5 and S6 pupils will rise to the challenge. Small rural schools and those where few pupils tackle SYS will find themselves disadvantaged unless the local authorities accept a generous teacher-pupil ratio at the top end of the school.

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