The proposals for the "Higher Still" reform of the Scottish post-16 exam system are raising concerns about the provision of access courses for unqualified adult returners in Scotland.
The proposed system of five-level Scottish Group Awards which are supposed to replace all non-advanced post-16 qualifications in Scotland in 1998 may mean that it is impossible for non-traditional students to gain entry-level qualifications in less than two years.
The east Scotland branch of the Scottish Wider Access Programme, which coordinates access courses in eastern Scotland, is organising a workgroup to discuss fears about the future of access. Representatives of Edinburgh, Napier and Heriot Watt universities will attend, along with representatives of further education colleges offering access courses.
Liz Hyatt, the director of SWAP East, said: "Higher Still will mean a long course of study with a lot of building blocks. There is no appropriate entry level for returning adults within Higher Still, and no acknowledgement of the qualities that returning adults bring. We don't see how adult students' needs will be catered for."
Ms Hyatt said there was concern that the proposed five-level structure of Scottish Group Awards would mean a move towards mature students having to take at least three Highers to secure entry to higher education. At present, access courses provide an alternative route for non-traditional or disadvantaged adult students.
The Higher Still consultation document says: "It may be helpful to establish the Scottish Group Award at Higher as a general target for students seeking entry to higher education." The Scottish Group Award at Higher is a package including at least three complete higher courses.
Ms Hyatt said: "None of the proposed Group Awards is appropriate to the needs of adult returners, but we're worried that local access provision for adult students will seem a second best. It will be very difficult to exist outwith the Higher Still framework."
Ms Hyatt said: "We hope to be able to put together our own proposals for a qualification that is acceptable to higher education."
Providers of access courses have also been concerned by the use of the term "Access level" in Higher Still documents to mean special needs level. Ms Hyatt said that there were fears that members of the public would be confused by the double meaning of the term.
Ms Hyatt said that the proposals for Higher Still could mean the end for the current division of the Scottish Wider Access Programme into three local units in the North, West and East. She said that if Access courses were to coexist with Higher Still, a national version of SWAP would be necessary. She said that the decisions of the workgroup would be discussed with their colleagues in the north and west.