Someone has noticed. All is not well at the top end of Scotland's secondary schools and all difficulties will not be resolved by Higher Still. Sir Ron Garrick is certainly not the first to report that "the current arrangements for the Scottish sixth year do not provide students with clear objectives". The Howie report reached a similar conclusion. Garrick, however, gives his view added point by indicating that the sixth year does not "appear to offer value for money". Worst still, he reaches this conclusion on the basis of comparison with the rest of the UK.
So what is new in Sir Ron's observations? The answer is that he is clearly not impressed by Higher Still - at least so far as sixth year is concerned. The committee acknowledges that Highers will continue to be a route into higher education. However, partly because of the new funding arrangements for students, the committee also saw entry on the basis of Advanced Highers becoming increasingly common. Hence the recommendation that the education community should evolve "a meaningful and credit-rated curriculum for the Advanced Higher".
The Government has already announced a one-year delay in the implementation of Higher Still. Bodies such as the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland have suggested that that year should not simply be used to make detailed preparations but also to tackle some of the existing weaknesses in the programme, including the lack of any clear rationale for the sixth year. Now that the Garrick committee has taken the same view, it is to be hoped that the Education Minister will take action. Even as it stands, Higher Still should represent significant progress.
Its range of Intermediate and Access courses will set realistic goals for the increasing number of fifth-year pupils for whom a full set of Highers is not appropriate. The need remains, however, to provide a real sense of purpose for able young people who have achieved university entrance requirements in fifth year or are on the verge of doing so. A sixth year of genteel idleness is hardly the best preparation for higher education or later life.
The report is clear that two interrelated problems lie behind the current limbo of the Scottish sixth year. First, there is the question of funding. Young people in Scotland can be funded for a total of 17 years' initial education; 13 at school followed by a four-year honours degree. In England, the normal maximum would be 16 years - 13 at school and three at university. This disparity was clearly one of the factors influencing the committee in its attempt to popularise a three-year bachelor's degree. Given the main thrust of the Garrick report and that of the Dearing committee at UK level, the issue of funding may well resolve itself. Faced with a choice between further study at school where tuition is free and four years of borrowing, young people are likely to opt increasingly to return for a sixth year, provided that a meaningful curriculum is on offer.
The second factor is the need to secure effective articulation between school and university courses. The current situation with students entering university at the end of either S5 or S6 is clearly difficult to manage. The significant proportion of students with A-level qualifications adds a further complexity. The committee concludes that "looking 10 years into the future" Advanced Higher must confer credit on entry to university courses, thus effectively making entry from Higher increasingly more problematic.
Higher Still already contains the answer in embryo. Two-year courses (whether at Higher or Advanced Higher level as appropriate) in a range of five subjects offer both breadth and depth. Breadth, of course, was traditionally seen as the strength of Highers in contrast with the English A-levels. That claim was exposed by Howie as largely a myth but could be made reality within the Higher Still structure. More importantly, if two-year courses were seen as the norm, the "two-term dash" would disappear and a much greater depth of study would be achieved.
Such an approach, of course, implies a recognition that the end of fifth year will not be a normal exit point from school to higher education. It would still provide an appropriate point of transfer to further education. As one of the great merits of the emerging structure of qualifications is the opportunity it provides for credit accumulation, this offers an alternative and indirect route into HE. For those seeking immediate entry to university, the route would normally be through sixth year at school. In a sense, this is no more than a recognition of what is increasingly the norm.
It will be argued that a two-year post-Standard grade course will put off some families, particularly those from disadvantaged areas. To this there are at least four answers. First, the ever increasing voluntary staying-on rate into both fifth and sixth year suggests otherwise. Second, the prospects for marginally qualified, less mature entrants into higher education are poor. Nobody's aspirations are carried forward by failure. Third, the new financial arrangements are likely to increase incentives to continue study at school for as long as possible. Finally, for those genuinely unwilling to make a commitment to a two-year course, the Higher Still framework offers alternative routes which can ultimately lead into HE.
The Garrick recommendations have put the defects in the existing Higher Still programme back on the agenda. The Howie Committee was perfectly clear on its view that the Scottish sixth year lacked any secure rationale. For whatever reason, the Higher Still programme has so far failed seriously to address that issue. The fact that the question is now raised again within the context of a very significant report makes it difficult to ignore. It is to be hoped that the answer will not on this occasion be fudged.
An even more important question is why the consensual approach to change within the Scottish educational establishment tends to avoid major issues. Just as Higher Still failed to tackle the sixth-year issue, so the 5-14 programme does not really address the primary-secondary divide. Will the forthcoming HMI report on the curriculum in the early years of secondary school do better?
Maybe too, a thorough review of Higher Still would question whether there is a continuing need for external examination at the end of the fourth as well as the fifth and sixth years. But, like the question of how thoroughgoing and effective change is best achieved, perhaps these are questions for another day.
Keir Bloomer is director of education for Clackmannanshire.