The Higher Still reform of post-16 education in Scotland
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Issue Most post-16 education and training is provided in the last two years of the comprehensive secondary school, in Further Education (FE) colleges which cater for all ages from 16 upwards, and in work-based training programmes which may include study in FE. Before 1999 there were three main types of courses:
# short (120-hour) single-subject ‘academic’ courses (Highers, the main qualification for university, and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS)), 
# 40-hour ‘vocational’ National Certificate modules, sometimes grouped as General Scottish Vocational Qualifications (GSVQs) and 
# occupational Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs).
These three pathways overlapped, especially in secondary schools where most students took combinations of Highers and modules.
    By the 1990s, a majority of young people continued education beyond 16. In schools, modules had low status so most students attempted Highers, but these were demanding and failure rates were high. Most students combined Highers and modules but these courses had very different principles of curriculum design and they were taught and assessed in very different ways. In some subjects modules were used to ‘bridge’ to Higher in the following year, but in othersubjects this was not possible. Moreover, there was concern that the one-year Highers courses did not reach a sufficient level of attainment for higher education, and critics alleged that the modular curriculum lacked coherence. In FE colleges the modules had higher status but their currency in the labour market was variable, and assessment had caused some difficulties. Finally, there was a growing demand from employers’ organisations that all young people should acquire ‘core skills’. (D.R. 31/07/00)
Measure The Higher Still reform is being introduced over a five-year period starting in 1999. It replaces Highers, CSYS and NC modules with a ‘unified system’ of National Qualifications. Except for SVQs, the unified system covers nearly all post-16 education below the level of higher education, including provision for adults. It embraces general and vocational subjects, and is based on a common architecture of (40-hour) units, usually grouped into 160-hour courses, which may in turn be grouped into 640- or 800-hour Scottish Group Awards (SGAs). Principles of curriculum design, assessment and certification are common throughout the system. Units, courses and SGAs are available at five levels: Access, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2, Higher and Advanced Higher. The top two levels correspond to the (old) Higher and CSYS respectively. The level of entry depends on previous attainment in the subject; students may mix courses at different levels. Core skills (numeracy, communication, IT, problem solving and working with others) are ‘embedded’ within units and courses where appropriate, and core skill attainment is mandatory for SGAs. However apart from SGAs there is no prescribed curriculum, except when schools impose their own requirements, and no specified volume of study. 
    The document which announced the Higher Still reform listed nine aims including higher standards and greater breadth of attainment, competence in core skills, opportunities to gain ‘marketable’ qualifications, the expansion and rationalisation of existing provision, 
transparency, and the unification of curriculum and assessment arrangements.
The new National Qualifications make no distinction between general and vocational subjects, which have formally equal status, and are available at all levels. A low-attaining 16 year-old no longer has to choose between an ‘academic’ Higher that is too demanding and a ‘vocational’ module that lacks status. Instead, s/he can take a lower-level course, such as Intermediate 1 or 2, which allows for progression to Higher in future years. The new Higher (and Advanced Higher) courses include a range of vocational subjects which were not available as old Highers or CSYS. (D.R. 31/07/00)
When vocational education and training is being designed, described or evaluated, the perspective adopted is that of "developing the system". This means justifying any measures undertaken on the basis of the given educational system's own, often organisational starting points; the aim is lucidity of description, the smooth and flexible performance of operations, and simplicity and efficiency of administration, that is  supervision. True, these are all creditable and desirable aims, but they involve such a degree of commitment to the regional administrative culture and to the stages of its development that when a VET practitioner observes or compares systems or programmes for their development they will fail to recognise the crucial points where change has taken place. 
    It is true that developing a system is always the essential reason behind reforms, but a more central consideration is monitoring how the services provided by the system are developing - that is, who are being served better after the reform. For example, of the six evaluation questions chosen as the starting points of the national evaluation, in Finland, of vocational skills tests, published this year, four covered the flexible functioning of the educational system while only one approached its operations from the point of view of the student and one from that of working life. This despite the fact that the production of occupational skill and the evaluation and assessment of the contents and level of vocational skills are always about launching or facilitating the individual career development of a young person about to enter working life or already making progress there. At the same time there is an effort to ensure production and working life, that is individual workplaces, labour and developmental potential that are both quantitatively and qualitatively adequate. The individual nature of qualification requirements or career development are submerged under the system's "student flows" an "industry-specific supply of labour". 
    The simple and apparently self-evident principle of taking into account, in reforms, the viewpoints and expectations both of working life and of students is in practice neither simple nor self-evident. In the context of education and training arrangements the qualification requirements of working life often carry more weight than aims involving the construction of individual learners' identity and competence, particularly as the learners are less able to articulate their needs. This conflict is at the root of the problems facing practical VET - lack of motivation, dropping out, wrong education and training choices, and capacity deficits. It is the insufficient attention paid to the learner's perspective that we see reflected in a central problem area of the vocational education and training system - progression, readiness to pursue further and higher studies, credit transfer, and the whole jungle of optional and free-choice studies. There is scarcely a country that is not looking for an answer to this question in reforms underway in other countries! 
    As regards developing an educational system, among the most central objectives are transparency and simplicity. They are of importance to the organisation itself in terms of its smoother functioning and, possibly, of savings, but in my opinion it is a system's increased transparency to the student and to working life that is more significant. Finland has recently awakened to the fact that the system that prepares occupational profiles and training programmes, for example as components of curricula, to meet the needs of the teachers and educational authorities who implement them remains unfamiliar to the learner and working life. The prime aim should be to describe vocational training paths, contents of occupations, and training programmes in a way that enables the learner and the agents of working life to recognise the opportunities that these open up. Accordingly, to achieve this aim experts in VET should be increasingly required to use a shared language. (M.T. 13/05/01)
Impact It is too early to assess impact, but the development and early implementation raise several issues. Many of these arise from the ‘unifying’ nature of the reform. For example, the unification of academic and vocational curricula has met some opposition, notably from some teachers of English who have resisted the encroachment of ‘training’ into ‘education’. There were disputes over the choice of  a single model of assessment that is suitable for different types of curriculum, for different levels of study, and for different types of students (eg adult returners as well as young people). The organisation of unit assessment, and the time required for it, has been one of the main issues in the first year of implementation. The introduction of a unified system raises particular problems of political management and control, compared with other types of educational reform. It requires a more top-down approach, which may have became more contentious because the underlying vision of a unified system was not vigorously promoted. Nevertheless, Higher Still probably has the support of most Scottish educationists.
    A further reform, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, will link Higher Still with SVQs and higher education qualifications. It will map all qualifications into a common framework based on the level and volume of study, as a basis for credit transfer and progression.
(D.R. 31/07/00)
Reference The context, aims and strategy of Higher Still are described by Raffe (1997a). Raffe and Howieson (1998a) analyse the policy process of developing and introducing the reform. For comparisons with England and Wales, and with other European countries, see Spours et al. (1998a) (full text for downloading), Lasonen (1996a) and Lasonen and Young (1998a). A three-year study of Introducing a Unified System is in progress, based in the Centre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh; a project web site is under construction. (D.R. 31/07/00)  
Author David Raffe Matti Taalas

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