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Future of baccalaureate is increasingly uncertain

The Scottish Baccalaureate was supposed to be the SNP's flagship education reform.

It was intended to boost the international reputation of Scottish qualifications, encourage more pupils to study subjects that had declined in popularity (such as modern languages) and help bridge the gap between school and university. It was to be, in effect, the new gold standard for bright and able pupils.

So what are we to make of new figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) which show that, five years after the baccalaureate was introduced, the numbers of pupils taking the exam are small and falling? The number of pupils taking a language baccalaureate, for example, fell from 32 in 2013 to 22 this year. There was also a drop in those studying the science qualification, from 142 to 136, and in expressive arts, the picture is even worse: only three pupils sat a baccalaureate in the subject this year.

The Scottish Government says it was always expected that the baccalaureate would be studied by a small number of pupils but ministers must be disappointed by the take-up and the fact that it is declining rather than growing, as intended.

Initially, there were some positive signs the reform could work, with private schools appearing particularly enthusiastic. There is also nothing wrong with the idea of a baccalaureate in principle and, long before they were in government, the SNP liked it as the model for a qualification with a unique Scottish identity.

However, the total number of schools taking up the qualification has remained disappointing and there are a number of possible explanations. The first is that the qualification as it stands is something of a compromise made up of Highers, Advanced Highers and an interdisciplinary project chosen by the student.

The baccalaureate has also failed to attract support from teachers, who have never liked reforms that appear to be imposed from on high. It also has not helped the baccalaureate that it was introduced at a time when teachers were already dealing with a snowstorm of reform, including the Curriculum for Excellence. With so much innovation already, many teachers feel they do not have the time to get behind the baccalaureate and give pupils the supervision they need.

Finally, there is the issue of universities and potential employers who continue to see the Higher as the gold standard in education. The baccalaureate does attract 65 Ucas points, but when an A at Higher attracts 130 and even a D 65, the question is: why not just do another Higher rather than the baccalaureate?

All of these issues have combined to make life hard for the new qualification. The Scottish Government says it will ask the SQA to provide more support but it must also listen carefully to the likes of Alan McKenzie of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, who believes it is time to scrap it. The baccalaureate was a perfectly good idea, but a troubled start, scepticism from teachers and the continuing frantic reform in schools must make its future uncertain at best.

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Education

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