Fiona Hyslop’s recent curricular announcement hit the headlines because of the proposed abolition of Standard Grades. But the education secretary’s statement included other debatable proposals.
For 20 years most Scottish students followed a broad based course in first and second years and then chose seven or eight subjects to pursue to Standard Grade. But some schools have recently chosen to move course choice from the end of S2 to the end of S1. This was driven by a fear of pupils marking time in second year and becoming disengaged with a too-academic curriculum bereft of choice.
The Scottish governmet’s proposal for all young people to experience a broad general curriculum, “reflecting the traditional strengths of the Scottish educational system”, to the end of S3 might not sound contentious. But for those who have moved to earlier course choice or moved from the traditional curriculum, it is.
Take Jim Cassidy, Headteacher at Gracemount High School, which has retained course choice at the end of S2 but pioneered innovative vocational courses in S3-4, the new proposals impose a one-size-fits-all philosophy. “At a time when we are supposed to be concentrating on flexibility and choice, why is the Scottish Government returning to a more rigid age-and-stage model?” he asks.
Among the most radical recent changes have been those at Govan High, in Glasgow, where course choice occurs at the end of S1 and students pursue only five courses in each of S2, S3 and S4. Here Standard Grades have already been scrapped.
Many of the courses are practical and vocational, built round a skills curriculum to make sense of the curriculum to young people, parents and potential employers by stressing and recording a list of 72 taught core skills.
Iain White, Headteacher of Govan High, believes there may be merit in the changes if the new system on achieving a number of units towards a US style diploma or baccalaureate. “However, we shifted to options at the end of S1 because we perceived the S2 experience to be a waste of time.
“If the new system makes a return to a ‘compulsory’ S2 and adds on an S3 experience that is also a waste of time, and we would be horrified! We now have pupils about to gain national qualifications in S1 never mind S2. We can’t return to a system that ‘hauds them back’.”
The view of S2 as a ‘waste of time’ impelled several schools to change. S1 was seen as a repeat of Primary 7 and S2 was marking time. Some schools concentrated these two years into one and moved on to certificated work, in order to raise attainment and engage students.
Some schools made the change precisely because S4 was often the year group when drop-out occurred. If that group was put through certification in S3, they might leave with something rather than the nothing, it was thought. The new proposals also offer the option of a two year Higher course, but lack of a national qualification at the end of S3 may well undermine schools’ capacity to offer a full vocational experience.
The recent OECD report called for a more vocational and flexible Scottish curriculum with less micro-management of schools.
The abolition of Standard Grades will be welcomed as a positive step in that direction but the extension of the ‘traditional’ first two years to an extra year of the same and the deferment of course choice will set vocational education back and seems to herald a return to a command management style.
The above article first appeared in The Herald on 13 May 2008.