TESS Article 13: A Scottish Certificate of Education

The recent OECD report on Scottish education contained a recommendation that “a Scottish Certificate of Education be developed to sanction completion of an approved programme of studies or training.” This ‘graduation’ certificate would have defined minimum requirements to reflect the purposes of the new 3-18 curriculum but also substantial flexibility as to content, level and duration of studies to ensure accessibility.

It was whilst pondering the significance of this recommendation that I was challenged by a secondary teacher about how he was going to keep kids motivated for three years, whilst they experienced an “S1 – S3 curriculum which is broad based and prepares students for the “senior phase of education which provides opportunities to obtain qualifications”.  

The teacher’s challenge to me was that if we can’t motivate kids in 2 years, why is extending that another year going to make a difference – especially if our entire secondary education is driven by the certification system?

I suppose someone like me has two options in such circumstances: discount his opinion and use my power, position and greater knowledge to justify my judgement; or, try to understand the “reality” of what our schools have become and help to build a new curriculum with that reality in mind – as opposed to discounting it as “bad practice” (when it’s actually the only practice many of us have known throughout our careers).

The “reality” is that in many teachers’ – and students’ minds – the S1 and S2 curriculum is only given value by its link to the certificated curriculum.  In fact such is the power of this “value through certification” that some schools in Scotland have introduced the certificated curriculum even earlier. The logic for this step is quite compelling and it certainly demonstrates that a school is “Dae’n sumthin” to address these fallow early years of secondary school.

So if, in reality, most secondary school curriculum models are actually driven by  a “trickle down” effect of certification why not recognise the power of such a driver and seek instead to build a different engine – which would still serve the needs of higher education – but which would also serve the needs of every young person and the needs of society.

In the interest of flying kites I’d like to suggest an alternative “driver” for a broad based S1-S3 curriculum, which might have value to parents, teachers and students.

That “driver” would be to create a Scottish Certificate of Education which students would be eligible for at the end of S3. In the OECD proposal such a certificate was to be for the 3-18 curriculum but I believe that some means of capturing a young person’s achievements up to that point before they start to engage with the world of formal qualifications, i.e. 3-15.

What if we could create a Scottish Certificate of Education which was more akin to Duke of Edinburgh Award, or John Muir Award, where it is more about accumulating achievements as opposed to any external exam? A curriculum where schools could be given the freedom to create the content within their SCE course using the headings set out in A Curriculum for Excellence,  e.g. skills for learning; skills for work; skills for life; curricular achievements across a broad curriculum; health and well being and, of course, numeracy and literacy. The only externally assessed element of this certificate would be numeracy and literacy – which would utilise the proposed Scottish Certificate for Numeracy and the Scottish Certificate for Literacy. A school’s S1 – S3 course could be submitted for external moderation to ensure that it met national standards but within that framework there could be considerable freedom.

In my “imagined” curriculum the focus in S1 – S3 would be upon an “employability portfolio”. I know that for some the idea of employability as a focus for education is a step too far, but I’d ask that you go with me here as I think we can flesh out a definition of employability which would be compelling, inclusive, and above all, easily understood by young people, parents and the wider community. Nevertheless, it would remain a fact that the S1 – S3 curriculum would not be certificated – as we currently know it.

I know this proposal seems to run counter to the original concept of non-certification before S3 but if we really seek to change our practice we need to recognise the “reality” in our schools and build from there and use “drivers” as forces for positive change – as opposed to ignoring that reality and building upon our “hopes”.