Curriculum for Excellence – A joined up approach

The recent media coverage around the new Highers may have produced some confusion and raised questions about how learners progressing to the higher education sector will be impacted.

Parents and pupils can be reassured. Regardless of whether learners sit the outgoing or the new Higher in 2014/15, we can’t foresee any problems in regards to university admissions as it was always the plan to have one year of overlap with these qualifications – with the outgoing Higher remaining available for those in S6 who will be completing their education under the old system. Universities are already geared up to accept learners with either qualification, with both the outgoing and the new Higher qualifications being equivalent on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF level 6).

Looking beyond this, one of the core aims of Curriculum for Excellence is to offer pupils more choice with a greater number of routes to the achievement of qualifications. Such changes present challenges for admissions and teaching in higher education but they are changes for which the sector is very well prepared having been closely engaged with Curriculum for Excellence for many years.

Around a third of Scotland’s school-leavers go on to higher education so it is important that the transition between the senior phase and university is joined-up. Universities gave pupils, parents, teachers a clear signal of their commitment to be ready for this in regards to admissions early last year when Universities Scotland published its report Beyond the Senior Phase which was welcomed by school leaders and parents groups. In the report, every higher education institution in Scotland committed to giving fair and equal consideration to candidates who possess the necessary knowledge and qualifications irrespective of the route they have taken through the senior phase. The curriculum is personalised more than before and universities can no longer assume that there is one ‘normal’ way for pupils in the senior phase to acquire their qualifications.

Since giving this commitment every institution has reviewed its admissions policies and practices in readiness for the senior phase. In doing so they have looked to marry the commitment for fair and equal consideration of the different routes used to achieve qualifications in the senior phase with the need for minimum entry requirements which provide an assurance that every entrant has the academic potential to handle the rigorous demands of degree-level study. Under an over-arching commitment to fair and equal consideration of applicants, every higher education institution will publish a statement on Curriculum for Excellence and revise its entry requirements where necessary. Eighteen higher education institutions have completed this process to date, and their statements can be found on institutions’ websites.

As at present, it will remain the case that each university is able to set different entry requirements. Such requirements differ not only between institutions but between courses. With 19 higher education institutions and thousands of undergraduate degree courses in Scotland it would be impossible to present a guide to admissions that would be relevant to every possible applicant here. It will remain very important that pupils, parents and teachers consult the websites, prospectuses and admissions staff of every university and course they are interested in so they have information specific to their interests and can make the best decision for them. That said all institutions are working to a few shared principles in relation to the senior phase which include:

  • Universities will continue to express minimum requirements mainly with reference to Highers.
  • Institutions are taking a flexible approach to the varied timescales over which pupils will now achieve their qualifications. The immense diversity of courses means that there can’t be a universal rule about when qualifications are achieved, and some courses will have admissions requirements which expect pupils to have taken several Highers at one sitting.
  • Advanced Highers and Baccalaureates are also recognised by universities for their potential to support progression in learning and provide a valuable grounding for study at undergraduate degree level. In general, institutions will not specify an S6 curriculum for applicants that is linked solely to Advanced Highers, but will instead expect to see evidence of full and continued commitment throughout S6 even if minimum entry requirements are met by the end of S5, and not necessarily in purely academic terms. Some institutions may also have particular academic requirements in relation to Advanced Highers for entry to some programmes.
  • Universities do not intend to count a candidate’s total number of National 5s towards general entry. Some universities or courses seek a minimum level of knowledge in English, Maths and/or other specific subjects at National 5, but will accept a Higher qualification if a candidate has not done a National 5.

From a university perspective there is much about the new Curriculum that is exciting and that is sure to equip pupils with the knowledge, abilities and attitude that will serve as an excellent basis for higher education. The additional flexibility and choice that Curriculum for Excellence looks to give pupils in the way qualifications can be achieved, is to be welcomed by all. Universities have looked to respect that in their new admissions policies. In a time of much change, one factor which remains constant is that getting into university will remain a highly competitive process. Prospective students, their parents and teachers will give themselves the best possible chance if they have a clear idea of their favoured courses and institutions and if they seek the information relevant to them as early as possible as they approach the senior phase.

Universities Scotland’s Overarching Statement on Curriculum for Excellence can be read here.