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The writing's on the wall for S grade;Opinion

LURKING IN the undergrowth of the verbiage which finally survived all 58 drafts to become the published text of the Labour-Liberal Democrat partnership agreement are a few interesting words: "We have . . . the stated intention of earning (not, please note, maintaining) a world-class reputation for the Scottish education system."

The penny has dropped with new Labour that there are other crucial factors at work in successful education systems. The Government is now fully aware that many countries which spend less per pupil are achieving in some cases spectacularly better results. Whether the Liberal Democrat B team at Holyrood will agree is as yet unclear.

At the same time Ronnie Smith of the Educational Institute of Scotland tells us that if he had been appointed education minister, he would have made his priority the protection of Scotland's four-year honours degree - symbol of Scottish educational excellence. He sees current promotion of that other Scottish tradition, the general three-year degree, as an undermining influence.

Mr Smith's view of the sanctity of the four-year degree is interesting, because it probably reflects broadly based public sentiment. But the traditional inflexibility of the four-year degree is about to experience a small and as yet hardly noticeable knock at the hands of Government itself. This stab in the back is at present the smallest flesh wound, hardly life threatening, but noteworthy.

I refer to the relaxation for exceptional candidates of the age and stage restrictions on Higher and Standard grades.

After consultation, when 66 per cent of correspondents supported the Government's preferred option, the decision has been made to allow external assessment for Standard grade (also levels Intermediate 1 and 2 of Higher Still) in S3. External assessment of Highers will be permitted in S4. These changes are planned for the next academic session.

These are important reforms, creating the possibility of far improved progression for the most able. They will provide a real focus for level F of the 5-14 programme. They will help to cure the well-documented ills and problems of S1 and S2 by tackling the element of marking time in the common course, which has so bedevilled the best efforts of Scotland's primary schools.

There are, however, a couple of further consequences. The genie of fast-tracking, once admitted in principle as of benefit to the individual concerned, will not be reincarcerated. Only a handful may have the ability to take this route - and even so there are significant implications for schools and teachers. But that handful could emerge from S4 with Highers complete, and from S5 with their clutch of Advanced Highers also under their belt.

Already some of Scotland's universities are making their decisions about which grouping of Advanced Highers will permit entry to year two of certain four-year degrees. So while the four-year degree may for the time being remain the goal of most, the educational and financial systems now in place will encourage high-fliers to attend yoonie for a mere three years.

There is another less immediately apparent consequence. Relaxation of the age and stage regulations will surely signify the beginning of the end for Standard grade as the external examination which marks the conclusion of compulsory schooling.

The new Higher Still development was always going to be problematic for the survival of Standard grade. But by bringing the possibility of taking Intermediate levels lower down the school, the Government now highlights this consequence. The writing is surely on the wall for Standard grade, and in the not too remote future. Perhaps only the Scottish Qualifications Authority will weep.

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