Canny way to a degree

October 11, 2002

Scotland gives pupils an option-filled path to higher education; England weeds them out of the school system, says Jenny Rees.

The government's target to increase participation in higher education in England to 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 by the end of the decade has sparked concern about how such participation should be defined and about the purpose of the policy.

Meanwhile, Scotland looks on with a smug smile. It has already reached that target and without extending the definition. How? There is, of course, the "lad o' pairts" argument - a greater respect for higher education and a greater belief that anyone of ability should be encouraged to enter it regardless of social background. And there may be some truth in that, although Scotland has been little more successful than England in broadening the social mix of its university students.

One distinctive characteristic of Scotland is the high (28 per cent) proportion of its higher education that is provided in further education colleges. More than 30,000 people are studying full time for HNC or HND awards in FE colleges in Scotland - the equivalent of two medium-sized universities. But this is part of a greater difference in structure between the two countries.

Scotland has an almost universal system of "all through" six-year comprehensive schools, taking pupils from the age of 12 when they leave primary school, until 18, if they choose to stay on beyond the statutory leaving age. There are no sixth-form colleges and most students in FE colleges are over 18. In England, most pupils leave their secondary school at 16 after taking GCSEs. Educational research shows that transitions at any stage disrupt the motivation to learn.

In Scotland, 78 per cent of the year 11 cohort are still at the same school a year later and by then many will have gained qualifications sufficient to enter higher education; 44 per cent are still at school two years later and most will by then have higher education entry qualifications. In contrast, three-quarters of the year 11 cohort in England have made some kind of transition, of whom less than a quarter have gone on to full-time study in sixth form or FE colleges. By year 12, only 34 per cent in total are on courses leading to A/AS levels, and only a further 9 per cent are taking their vocational equivalents.

Scotland also has a progressive and flexible system of examinations - the Higher Still portfolio developed from well-established Highers and related qualifications. While teachers and pupils in England now complain bitterly of the examination burden of AS levels in lower sixth, as well as A levels in upper sixth, Scottish pupils have for a long time had public examinations in each of their last three years at school - Standard Grades in year 11, Highers (and now Intermediates) in year 12 and then more Highers and/or Advanced Highers in year 13. There is no debate about the equivalence of AVCEs (vocational A levels) or AGNVQs with A levels because everyone takes awards from within the Higher Still portfolio. Once they have their results each year, they can review their position and decide what to do next. No one is tied in; no one has to make decisions for more than a year ahead. Incrementalism encourages participation.

Thirty-two per cent of school-leavers in Scotland have at least three passes at Higher, the minimum standard for entry to a degree course. A further 12 per cent have at least one pass at Higher, which enables them to enrol on an HNC, the lowest level of higher education course. Others will proceed to college to take FE-level qualifications that later allow them to enter HNC/HND or degree courses. Most Scottish pupils are 17 or 18 by the time they leave school, and 52 per cent go on directly to full-time education - 32 per cent into higher education and a further 20 per cent into further education, from which many will then progress to higher education.

So England should not simply exhort universities to open the door wider. It should not create small elements of learning and describe them as a higher education experience. Instead it should look to the way it has allowed its school and college structure to develop - a structure that weeds out at every stage rather than one that encourages and retains. And it should look to its examination system but not, despite the recent A-level fiasco, simply by returning to two-year A-level programmes and supposedly vocational equivalents. Now is the time for a broad and incremental examination system; not a dumbing-down but rather an opportunity to aspire and achieve.

Jenny Rees is executive director of corporate planning, Glasgow Caledonian University.

18 SoapboxThe Times HigherJOctober 11J2002 Gary Day Principal lecturer in EnglishDe Montfort University ham khan Choice managerial words Fed up with bureaucrat-ese? The THES wants to hear from you. Send examples of your favourite examples of management speak to mandy.garner@thes.co.uk. We will publish the best.

'Managers love to juggle metaphors. It is one of the reasons why no one knows what they are talking about'

The government's target for England to increase participation in higher education to 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 by the end of the decade has sparked concern about how participation in higher education should be defined and about the purpose of the policy.

Meanwhile Scotland looks on with a smug smile. It has already reached that target and without extending the definition. How? There is, of course, the "lad o' pairts" argument - a greater respect for higher education and a greater belief that anyone of ability should be encouraged to enter it regardless of social background. And there may be some truth in that, although Scotland has been little more successful than England in broadening the social mix of its university students.

One distinctive characteristic of Scotland is the high (28 per cent) proportion of its higher education that is provided in further education colleges. More than 30,000 people are studying full-time for HNC or HND awards in FE colleges in Scotland - the equivalent of two medium-sized universities. But this is part of a greater difference in structure between the two countries.

Scotland has an almost universal system of "all through" six-year comprehensive schools, taking pupils from the age of 12 when they leave primary school, until 18, if they choose to stay on beyond the statutory leaving age. There are no sixth-form colleges and most students in FE colleges are over 18. In England, most pupils leave their secondary school at 16 after taking GCSEs. Educational research shows that transitions at any stage (starting school, moving to secondary school, moving to college) disrupt the motivation to learn.

In Scotland, 78 per cent of the Year 11 cohort are still at the same school a year later and by then many will have gained qualifications sufficient to enter higher education; 44 per cent are still at school two years later and most will by then have higher education entry qualifications. In contrast, three quarters of the Year 11 cohort in England have made some kind of transition. Only 34 per cent are, by Year 12, on courses leading to A/AS levels, and only a further 9 per cent are taking their vocational equivalents.

Scotland also has a progressive and flexible system of examinations - the Higher Still portfolio developed from well-established Highers and related qualifications. While teachers and pupils in England now complain bitterly of the examination burden of AS levels in lower sixth, as well as A-levels in upper sixth, Scottish pupils have for a long time had public examinations in each of their last three years at school - Standard Grades in Year 11, Highers (and now Intermediates) in Year 12 and then more Highers and/or Advanced Highers in Year 13. There is no debate about the equivalence of AVCEs (vocational A-levels) or AGNVQs with A-levels because everyone takes awards from within the Higher Still portfolio. Every school pupil in Scotland can be directed to the mix of subjects and levels that matches their abilities and aspirations. Once they have their results each year, they can review their position and decide what to do next. No-one is tied in; no-one has to make decisions for more than a year ahead. Incrementalism encourages participation.

Thirty-two per cent of school-leavers in Scotland have at least three passes at Higher, the minimum standard for entry to a degree course. A further 12 per cent have at least one pass at Higher, which enables them to enrol on an HNC, the lowest level of higher education course. Others will proceed to FE college to take FE level qualifications which later allow them to enter HNC/HND or degree courses. Most Scottish pupils are 17 or 18 by the time they leave school, and 52 per cent go on directly to full-time education - 32 per cent into higher education and a further 20 per cent into further education, from which many will then progress to higher education. And of course some take a year out or study part-time; many of Scotland's students are in their early twenties.

So England should not simply exhort universities to open the door wider. It should not create small elements of learning and describe them as a higher education experience. Instead it should look to the way it has allowed its school and college structure to develop - a structure that weeds out at every stage rather than one that encourages and retains. And it should look to its examination system but not, despite the recent A-level fiasco, simply by returning to two-year A-level programmes and supposedly vocational equivalents. Now is the time for a broad and incremental examination system; not a dumbing-down but rather an opportunity to aspire and achieve.

Jenny Rees is executive director of corporate planning, Glasgow Caledonian University.

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