Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Results, results, results... part two

OK, settle down, this might be a long one.

A quick recap: first up, the structure of Scottish education, exam-wise. In fifth year (a bit like year 11 down South - the first year of the two year A Level?) able pupils will sit Highers; in sixth year pupils can then choose to sit Advanced Highers (very much like A Levels, though probably a bit harder to be honest... I would say that, being Scottish), or perhaps more Highers in other subjects. or a mix of both.

But! according to the news today (see here, for example), the number of students choosing AHs is down on last year, much to the (apparent) consternation of universities. How can this be?

Well, two reasons, both of them pretty accurate if you ask me:

1. It's the universities' fault
It's a bit rich of the universities to complain about this situation, given that they use the Higher (NOT the AH) as the benchmark for university entrance. When the structure of our exams was changed a few years back and AH introduced (in place of the old "Sixth Year Studies"), the unis had a perfect opportunity to back AHs as precisely the sort of course which students should have to do. But they didn't. Oh no. Why not? Well, I hate to be cynical here, but if they had gone for AHs instead of Highers, then they wouldn't have got so many students through their doors... which of course means less money.

And so the status quo reigns. If a student does well in their Highers in fifth year, they can do bugger all in sixth year and they will still get a place at university. So why should they knock themselves out studying a harder course like AH? (We have to do a big sell in my school on how difficult it is to cope with a Maths degree if all you've seen is Higher work, which is true beyond words I can offer here.)

But there's more: when asked, universities will actually advise students not to bother with AHs and go off and do some more Highers instead. I can offer a personal example here: a student of mine once applied to study Maths at a Scottish university and did well in his Maths Higher (an A), but less well in other subjects. This lad was clear that he wanted to study Maths so in his sixth year he studied two Maths AHs (Pure and Applied, if you will), plus Higher Accounting. Now his Higher results weren't so strong that he was going to be offered an unconditional place, but we were pretty pissed off when the unversity in question made him an offer conditional on him getting a B in Accounting and completely ignored the far more relevant (surely?) Maths AHs.

So if universities really are so gutted at the drop in AH uptake, it's high time they started treating it as at least equal importance (if not more so) than the Higher.

2. The schools can't afford to run them - or aren't willing to
Now I don't want to get personal here, but let me say this: for most schools, for most subjects, the number of students who will want to study an AH will be small (easily fewer than ten), and for the management of most schools, that's not a cost they are willing to meet. Far too expensive. Classes of single figures - how ridiculous!

However... I do like to point out that the most able pupils in our schools tend to be taught in the largest of classes from first to fifth year (up around 30 in a class, maybe more), whilst the less able get targeted help and support in smaller classes. So, in a sense, the more able subsidise the less able. Is it so ridiculous to hope that we might view AHs in sixth year as some form of minor payback?

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So there you go. It would be nice if, say, the new government in Scotland could throw some money at the problem so that schools could more readily afford to run AHs (though I sense this isn't terribly high up their agenda), but it will take more than a few crocodile tears from the universities if we are really to do something about the problem in uptake.

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