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A year of grace that must be used wisely

The education community has got what it wanted in the further year's postponement of the Higher Still programme. The inadequacies of the present system, so graphically outlined in the Howie report, will continue for another year. But advocates of speedy change are, by their silence, acquiescing in the majority view that schools (though possibly not colleges?) are still unprepared.

As a new minister, Brian Wilson will have lost no sleep in announcing the delay. Labour had already signalled its intention to do so and he is a shrewd enough politician to know that he can make reasonable demands in return for the concession. With two years until the start of the new Higher courses, he can expect teachers and their employers to ensure that there is now adequate preparation. There can be no further talk of boycott or of half-heartedness.

The profession has long accepted the thrust of Higher Still, while continuing to question some of the details, such as the content of some courses and methods of assessment. There is now no refuge from action. The level of resourcing will never be deemed adequate, but that is always the case, and extra time can be counted as amounting to extra resources.

Preparations in schools and colleges have to be paralleled by a publicity programme explaining the real significance of Higher Still. This has to be addressed almost as much to educational lobbies as to the wider public and to business. Recent controversy about Advanced Higher has shown that for many supposedly informed people the meaning of the programme is still mired in mist. They assume that the changes are to do with existing Highers and Advanced Highers as the successor to the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies. Yet these are peripheral to the main point of Higher Still.

Until the same people start talking about the opportunities of and any problems with Access and Intermediate levels 1 and 2, the significance of the changes will not have been grasped. As an aspiration, parity of esteem has nothing to do with equating Advanced Higher and A-levels, as some people think. It is about bringing together academic and vocational courses and treating them as equally valuable, while recognising that they may serve different purposes as well as different groups of young people.

Discussion of such fundamental aspects of Higher Still will open up areas of concern to teachers, such as how to teach several levels in the one class. The task now is to ensure that chools and teachers are equipped to implement a better curriculum for all pupils, including high-fliers for whom sixth year has been a waste of time and S5 returners for whom a curriculum had to be cobbled together. Time is never on one's side in such a venture, but at least it has become less of an enemy.

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