It's Our Future - Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment: report

Final report of the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment in Scotland.

4. The Scottish Diploma of Achievement

4.1 Introduction

Evidence emerging from this Review presents a convincing case to change the current system of qualifications and assessment in Scotland. The first phase of engagement led to a shared view of what is desirable: a Vision for the future of qualifications. The review of CfE helped us to identify what actions this Review should take to avoid the mistakes of the past. The engagement with countries internationally helped us to identify what is possible: what practices already exist in practice elsewhere. The evidence from the second and third phases of engagement shaped the structure of the proposed new approach to qualifications and assessment, the Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA), and identified what would be necessary to make it work in practice; what is practical.

In this Chapter, we make recommendations for the SDA and in the next Chapter we consider practical implications.

4.2 The Vision and Principles: the Future of Qualifications and Assessment

The Vision

The proposed Vision for the future of qualifications and assessment in Scotland is for:

An inclusive and highly regarded Qualifications and Assessment system that inspires learning, values the diverse achievements of every learner in Scotland and supports all learners into the next phase of their lives, socially, culturally and economically.

It is a system which will recognise the achievements of all learners, including those who are highly able and those who have severe and complex learning difficulties. Qualifications should be highly regarded by learners; they are their qualifications. Colleges, employers, universities, and the voluntary sector should also hold them in high regard. The SDA will offer a better base for selecting candidates.

The SDA is designed to inspire learning. It will offer learners a wide and flexible range of opportunities to build knowledge and to develop skills in areas of interest and significance to them (through Programmes of Study). It will allow learners to apply their knowledge and skills to support their progress beyond school or college; in life, learning and employment (through the Project Learning). It will recognise, value and promote learners’ individual achievements (through the Personal Pathway). The SDA will help learners to grow socially, culturally and economically. Having a qualification system where every learner thrives will help to create a more equitable and prosperous society in Scotland, a society that will work for all of us, regardless of the personal characteristics of learners gaining the qualifications.

“We need a framework for neuro-divergent young people. If we want to value the full range of achievement we need to value the learner. One learner told us:

“As an autistic person I would have loved this – I’m a bit sad I’m not getting to go through this system. It’s not about giving concessions and exceptions but embracing everyone.” – (CCG member, Learners)

The Principles

In addition to the Vision statement, the Review sought views on Principles that should be used to inform the design of the qualification and assessment system. To promote good alignment between the Vision and Principles and practice over time, the Principles offer a structure for reviewing policy and practice. If practice is reviewed on a regular basis against the Vision and Principles, any problems emerging can be identified at an early stage and appropriate action taken allowing the system to learn from its own practice.

The Principles are:

Scotland's qualifications and assessment system should:

1. Recognise, value and promote the rights and achievements of every learner.

2. Reflect the Scottish curriculum whilst being responsive to the changing needs of individual learners and of society, creating a positive and sustainable future for learners, their communities and the wider world.

3. Develop and maintain an appropriate range of approaches to assessment including through digital mechanisms.

4. Be clear, coherent, credible and easily understood as part of a lifelong learning journey.

5. Be adaptable and subject to regular review using the Vision and Principles as a touchstone against which change can be tested.

6. Ensure that all groups* with a stake are involved in future decisions related to design, implementation and practice.

*This should include learners, parents/carers, teachers/lecturers, national bodies, colleges, employers, universities and the voluntary sector.

While all parts of the Vision and Principles statement are important, we would like to draw attention to Principles 1 and 2. Principle 1 is a commitment that the achievements of every learner should be ‘recognised, valued and promoted’. We believe the Diploma, with its three constituent parts, provides a flexible platform for all learners to present their achievements. All means all: learners who are neurodivergent or have ASN including, those who are highly able those who combine school experience with college learning, those who are home educated, and those whose achievements come through employment. The inclusive nature of the Diploma is explored further in the next Chapter and in Appendix One which details learner journeys based on a range of common interactions with the Senior Phase in Scotland.

The findings of The Scottish Government’s recently completed National Discussion are consistent with the Vision and Principles offered in this Review. Their findings suggest that learners expect greater personalisation in their experience of the Senior Phase and wider education system. The National Discussion and our own work also make clear that there is an expectation that “that learning should be recognised in a variety of ways that accommodate different learning pathways and options that learners choose.”

The National Discussion (2023) also argues that:

“Educating Our Future requires a Scottish education system that is proactive, flexible, integrated, and upholds the rights of all children and young people. A future Scottish Education system will offer high-quality teaching and learning, different learner pathways, alternative routes to success and a range of appropriate assessments that reflect the unique talents of each learner, supports their ambitions, and meets the needs of a changing world.” (National Discussion, 2023)

The sense of responsiveness to the needs of individual learners is core to the recommendations of this Review and our second Principle reinforces the findings of both the National Discussion and Putting Learners At The Centre (Muir 2022) by stating that Scotland’s system of qualifications and assessment must “reflect the Scottish curriculum whilst being responsive to the changing needs of individual learners and of society, creating a positive and sustainable future for learners, their communities and the wider world.” We believe the Diploma has the potential to take forward this aspiration.

Recommendation 4: Adopt the Vision and Principles proposed in this Review into policy and practice. Qualifications and Assessment in Scotland should be aligned with the Vision and Principles.

These should be used as the basis for regular review to ensure that ideas and practices remain aligned.

4.3 The Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA)

The Diploma has been designed to reflect more of what we value in learning and what will be of greater value to learners as they move forward in their lifelong learning journey. It offers learners the opportunity to have a broader range of achievements recognised, all crucial for their future successful progression.

Figure 3: The Scottish Diploma of Achievement

Scottish Diploma of Achievement

  • Personal Pathway
  • Project Learning
  • Programmes of learning

Programmes of Learning

In-depth study of individual areas of the curriculum, subjects and vocational, technical and professional qualifications, will remain a fundamental part of qualifications. However, the new approach to qualifications should go further to improve alignment with CfE.

Project Learning

Learners should have opportunities to demonstrate how they can use knowledge from across subjects, both technical and professional to tackle challenges. These kinds of experiences are closer to those learners will have beyond school or college, for example being able to work as part of a team, to investigate, to solve problems and to look for creative solutions.

Personal Pathway

Learners are individuals and should have opportunities to demonstrate their individuality- the courses they choose, the projects they undertake, their interests, their contributions and aptitudes. Together, these combine to help learners make good decisions about what they might do next. This wider, more personalised information will provide colleges, employers and universities with a better evidence base to inform their decisions about which students or employees are likely to be best suited to which course or job.

4.4 Why these three areas?

Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment should be a coherent whole (Wyse et al, 2016). The curriculum identifies what matters. In the context of the Senior Phase, Priestley (2019) argues that when planning for learning, the first question should not be “What subjects should we teach?” but rather “What is important, what matters?”. After curriculum, what matters is pedagogy, the approaches to learning and teaching used to engage learners with the curriculum and to promote their learning. From there, assessment seeks to discern the progress learners are making in what matters, and how that evidence might be used to inform their further progress in learning. Qualifications represent the formal recognition of that learning for many, though not all, learners.

What matters should be the focus for learning and teaching, for assessment and for qualifications. The crucial question for qualifications is not what can we most easily measure. The question for programmes of study posed previously, should become the question for qualifications: what knowledge, skills and attributes should an educated person have to be able to thrive in a modern, complex democratic society?

Currently, the curriculum in Scotland is defined as

“the totality of all that is planned for children and young people from early learning and childcare, through school and beyond. That totality can be planned for and experienced by learners across four contexts:

  • Opportunities for Personal Achievement
  • Interdisciplinary Learning
  • Ethos and Life of the School as a Community
  • Curriculum Areas and Subjects”

(Education Scotland, 2023)

The evidence from Phase Two of the Review suggested that across communities, qualifications and assessment should relate more closely to the CfE curriculum and to the contexts for learning. The SDA reflects this desire to extend the breath of qualifications and assessment to reflect the Scottish curriculum.

Programmes of Learning

  • Curriculum Areas and Subjects
  • Vocational, Technical and Professional courses

Project Learning

  • Interdisciplinary Learning

Personal Pathway

  • Opportunities for Personal Achievement
  • Ethos and Life of the School as a Community

The three areas of the SDA, Programmes of Learning, Project Learning and Personal Pathway bring together the knowledge, skills and attributes that citizens need in a modern, complex democratic society.

In Appendix One we have exemplified what the SDA could look like in practice. We have purposely provided a wide, though not exhaustive, range of examples. These examples were developed in partnership with educational settings and key stakeholders.

Recommendation 5: Adopt the Scottish Diploma of Achievement (the Diploma) as the new approach to qualifications and assessment. The Scottish Diploma of Achievement should contain three elements: Programmes of Learning, Project Learning and the Personal Pathway

Recommendation 6: Use the Scottish Diploma of Achievement as a graduation certificate for all Senior Phase educational settings

The following criteria should be used as a starting point for further development of the Diploma:

  • All learners must be offered the chance to experience learning in all elements of the Diploma. This should be viewed as an entitlement.
  • The overall Diploma should not be graded. It should be awarded when achievements are recognised in each element, Programmes of Learning, Project Learning and the Personal Pathway.
  • Within the Diploma, courses within Programmes of Learning if currently graded will continue to be graded. Project Learning will not be graded but projects will be linked to the different levels of the SCQF framework with different credits. The Personal Pathway will not be graded.
  • The Diploma will be awarded at point of exit and will include achievements gathered to that stage. It will include, qualifications, awards, credit accumulated and learner reflections on their personal learning through the Personal Pathway.
  • The three elements of the Diploma should not be weighted. All elements are important as evidence of breadth of achievement.
  • The Diploma, and the evidence within it, will move with the learner to be built on in college, employment, university and the voluntary sector.
  • If a learner does not show evidence of learning in all three elements, the Diploma will not be awarded. They will leave with a record of what they have achieved. It will be possible to undertake learning at a later stage to allow for the award to be made.
  • All elements of the Diploma should be accessible to Gaelic Medium Learners.
  • All learners should have a digital profile to allow them to record achievements in Programmes of Learning, Project Learning and Personal Pathway. The profile will be owned by the learner. The Qualifications Body will regulate the information about achievements in Programmes of Learning and Project Learning. The Personal Pathway will be entirely in the control of the learner.
  • The digital profile must be fully accessible for all learners and available in Gaelic and other minority languages.

It is important that issues of data ownership and security are considered carefully and learners must retain ownership of their Personal Pathway and its contents. The Review commends the initial work by Education Scotland in this area and would recommend that, if the concept of the Diploma is adopted, work in digital profiling and in digital security should be accelerated.

While this was not examined in detail as part of this Review, we believe there may be opportunities to rationalise the landscape of digital tools/profiles across the education sector and it would be worth considering how a new profile would relate to existing systems including Glow and My World of Work. It would also be useful to consider wider developments taking place beyond Scotland in profiling, particularly approaches that have been subject to trials in schools and colleges, for example, the work of Rethinking Assessment.

4.5 Programmes of Learning

As is currently the case, the Diploma will require learners to study in depth defined Programmes of Learning including National Qualifications (levels 1 to 7), National Certificates, Foundation Apprenticeships, National Progression and Skills for Work Awards. Most of a learner’s time in the Senior Phase will be focused on building and then deepening their knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas. Learning in general courses (subjects) and/or in technical and professional (vocational) programmes in college, remains crucial. These are the fundamental building blocks of education in Scotland.

Studying Programmes of Learning is a crucial element of the SDA and will depend on the expertise of subject-based educators and vocational, technical and professional experts in educational settings. The existing links between schools, colleges and community learning have brought a richness to the offer for learners through a broad range of experiences. It is likely that the offer to learners will continue to expand as opportunities for in-depth study on-line expand.

Online courses are already part of the education landscape in Scotland. Universities, nationally and internationally, have a wide range of courses available online that offer challenging opportunities for learners with particular interests and aptitudes. Courses such as these allow learners to progress at their own pace and are likely to become an increasingly important part of the future landscape. In addition, e-Sgoil or an alternative virtual campus (for example, Highland Virtual Campus) allows learners to undertake SQA awards. Approaches such as this may be of particular interest to schools and colleges where the curriculum offer is more restricted because of difficulties in location or in teacher recruitment.

Schools and colleges should be creative as they seek to ensure that all learners have access to a broad and balanced offer.

The current approach to qualifications in schools in Scotland in the Senior Phase has attracted strong criticism. A key issue in Scottish education is what is known as the “two-term dash”. (Priestley et al., (2020) reported that;

“Young people would like to see achievement captured throughout the year, rather than the ‘two term’ dash towards examinations (in particular for Higher).” (p39)

The idea of a “two term dash” was a consistent theme throughout the Review. It was used to illustrate concern for a system of learning and teaching that in years four to six of secondary school focused less on quality and depth of learning but was almost entirely driven by preparation for examinations.

Examinations are one approach to gathering evidence. For some purposes, examinations work well, but as with all methods of assessment, they have limitations. The evidence from recent investigations (Stobart, 2021) and Priestley et al,(2020) suggests that in Scotland, to increase validity, i.e., the relationship between what is important in the curriculum and what is part of the qualification, the balance between coursework and external examinations should be reconsidered. For example, Stobart (2021) argues that Scotland has too many examinations, for many learners, three sets of external assessment in three years.

Before COVID-19, most SQA National Qualifications included a mix of assessment methods. Qualifications were designed to assess all four capacities. However, the perception is that now the focus is on one capacity, Successful Learners.

A second issue raised consistently throughout the Review was that of progression. The relationship between National 4, National 5 and Higher in subjects across the curriculum was perceived to be problematic. There were also concerns about SQA course specifications being the main source of curriculum guidance in national qualifications in the Senior Phase.

Recommendation 7: Include the Programmes of Learning element as a prerequisite for the award of the Diploma. All learners should be offered a broad range of courses including academic, vocational, professional and technical courses. It is an entitlement.

The Review recommends that the learning, teaching and assessment of Programmes of Learning can be strengthened by adopting the following actions. These actions should be undertaken collaboratively by teachers, including subject specialists, and learners, local authorities/Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs), national agencies and academics:

  • Review Course Specifications to ensure that there is a strong relationship between what matters in the curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and qualifications.
  • Improve progression between Broad General Education and the Senior Phase and within the Senior Phase. Curriculum for Excellence should provide progressive experiences for learners. Throughout the Review concerns were expressed about the extent to which there was clear progression within subjects. The articulation between BGE and Senior Phase was perceived to lack coherence as was the relationship between National levels 4 and 5 and between National 5 and Higher in a number of subject areas.
  • Broaden the range of assessment methods for National Qualifications in the Senior Phase. The range of approaches to assessment should reflect what matters in the curriculum. The decision about which approaches to assessment to select should be based on how best to gather evidence of a learner’s achievements in what is important in each programme of learning. More classroom-based assessment offers better opportunities to improve validity. Including a variety of approaches to assessment in a qualification also recognises that learners respond differently to different approaches. For example, some learners will be able to demonstrate greater achievement if asked to describe what they know or have done in an oral examination than if asked to write a response. For other learners, the opposite is true. Self and peer assessment, where learners have to think about their own and other’s learning can help to deepen learners’ understanding of progression and how they can become autonomous self-regulating learners who know how to improve their performance and how to support others. It can give teachers evidence of how deeply a learner understands the focus of study. The range of methods used will differ for each programme of learning and should be a matter for subject groups that include classroom teachers. We note that a mixture of approaches to assessment was present across programmes pre COVID-19 and are being reintroduced in session 2023-24 as Scotland continues to recover from the pandemic. It will be important that this re-introduction seeks to tackle the challenge of formulaic experiences for learners in both coursework and examinations.

“The practice of placing a strong emphasis on teacher-based assessment has a range of advantages. Teachers have multiple opportunities to observe students over time and performing a variety of tasks, including team work, oral performance and extended projects, and in this sense their observations have higher validity than a one off examination would have.” (OECD, 2020)

“High school examinations are essentially an out-of-date 19th and 20th century technology operating in a 21st century environment of teaching and learning. Digital technology is transforming our capacities for self-assessment, peer assessment, shared assessment and continuous assessment. Assessment and examinations can now be more continuous, rather than episodic. They can provide capacities for continuous self-assessment and self-directed progression in learning. They can enable transparent sharing of assessments with pupils, parents and professional colleagues that will lead to timely teacher assistance and intervention.” (ICEA, 2020)

  • Reduce the number of examinations in the Senior Phase. Examinations are one important way of gathering evidence however the current system has too many examination points. We propose that there will be no external examination at SCQF levels 1- 5. Assessment will be internal only. External examinations, alongside internal assessment, will remain part of National Qualifications at SCQF level 6 Higher and SCQF level 7 Advanced Higher We believe this will result in a reduction in pressure on learners and staff in education settings and will promote opportunities for greater depth in learning. This will open up a range of possibilities, for example, SCQF Level 6 Higher courses will be progressive across 2 years. If a learner decides to end their study of a course in S4, they will leave with the credit they have accumulated. If they have earned sufficient credit to be awarded a level 4 or 5 award, their coursework will be externally validated, and the award made. A learner will not be deemed to have exited if study continues in fifth and sixth year.
  • Retain examinations where they are an important part of the assessment methodology. Review existing examinations to reduce susceptibility to question prediction and over-rehearsal. This may involve a reconsideration of the kinds of questions asked, the range of options available in examination papers and the assessment methods used. However, these actions alone will not change the current culture around examinations. For the culture to change, there will also have to be changes in pedagogy in schools and classrooms, but the actions proposed will help and will act as a stimulus for change.
  • Increase flexibility by modularising courses in Programmes of Learning. Programmes of Learning should be organised into modules to allow learners maximum flexibility to build credit as they progress through courses. It should be possible for modules from different types of award to be combined. For example, modules at National 5 should also be able to contribute towards a National Certificate at Level 5. Wherever possible, evidence of achievement should come from normally occurring assessment tasks as part of learning and teaching rather than from the introduction of additional summative assessment tasks. We recognise that further work will be required to move towards a modularised approach.
  • Create more time for learning and teaching. The removal of external assessment in S4 will create more time for learning and teaching across S4 and S5. For example, credit will be accumulated across a two-year period for learners taking courses at SCQF level 6 Higher. Be vigilant to make sure that the time released is used for learning and teaching. Bureaucracy is created, it is not a naturally occurring state.

The sixth year of school offers opportunities to extend and to deepen the range of activities undertaken in the SDA. Learners in sixth year will be able to continue to undertake a range of programmes consistent with their individual progression. For some learners this may include a broader range of National courses or other achievement awards. For other learners, courses may be at SCQF levels 6 or 7 or contribute to Foundation Apprenticeships or National Progression Awards. Education settings should continue to work with learners to explore future options to identify their future learning pathway. The system should be flexible. For example, if a learner wishes to undertake a one year Chemistry - SCQF level 6 - Higher in sixth year, this should remain possible. In addition, the other two elements of the Diploma, Project Learning and Personal Pathway offer significant new opportunities for learners in S6 to extend and deepen their profile of activities. For example, the Project is linked to the SCQF framework. This framework could allow learners to undertake a project at or beyond level 7, offering a level of challenge beyond that traditionally offered in schools.

4.6 The Personal Pathway

One of the key Principles of the Review is to value a broader range of achievement beyond acquisition of subject or technical, vocational and professional qualifications. This element of the Diploma allows a more personalised picture of a learner to emerge. This is a crucial part of building personalisation and choice into the Senior Phase.

One of the strongest themes to emerge in the Review from learners was a desire to personalise qualifications. The Personal Pathway provides a way to encourage and celebrate the interests, learning, skills and achievements of every learner. The opportunity for an individual to reflect on their learning is a key skill for all learners. Wider learning opportunities to include a degree of learner choice, can make a significant contribution to other forms of learning, for example, improving motivation, building strong relationships. The potential for wider learning opportunities to enhance a learner’s commitment to education more generally should not be underestimated.

Recommendation 8: Include the Personal Pathway element as a prerequisite for the award of the Diploma. It is an entitlement and must be available to all learners. This is an issue of equity. It must be flexible for all learners, recognising the importance of personal choice and should focus on what learners have learned about themselves.

The Personal Pathway should encourage and celebrate the interests, competences and achievements of every learner

The Personal Pathway offers learners opportunities to personalise their profile, to select aspects of their experiences that reflect their interests, the contributions they make to society and their career aspirations for employment.

The Personal Pathway should be owned by the learner and promote personalisation and choice. It is the learner who decides what information is contained within the Personal Pathway.

Within this part of the Diploma, learners may reflect on what they have learned from

  • Contributions they have made to the school or college as a community or to communities beyond their education setting.
  • Cultural activities they have taken part in or led, for example, music, art, drama, Gaelic culture, sport, wider cultural activities, for example, language learning.
  • Strategies they have developed to promote their own well-being and how they support the well-being of others.
  • Activities they have taken part in to support them in decisions about what they may wish to do post school or college, for example, their exploration of possible careers, enterprise activities they have undertaken or approaches to entrepreneurship they have explored.
  • Activities or achievements of which they are particularly proud.

The Personal Pathway should aim to include social, cultural, economic and well-being aspects. In many cases learner experiences will integrate a number of these aspects.

  • The focus in the Personal Pathway is not on gathering experiences, but on what an individual has learned through experience.

Personalisation and choice are likely to become an increasing feature of education in the future. Learners’ experiences in education will become increasingly flexible and personalised. Teachers will be asked to mentor learners, to help to guide them through a complex learning environment. Through the Personal Pathway, learners will be supported to reflect on their learning across all three elements of the Diploma and on what they are learning about themselves.

Appropriate professional learning opportunities in coaching and mentoring will be necessary for those who would wish to take on these new roles, for example. teachers, lecturers, parents/carers, youth workers, schools, colleges and other settings that provide education and may be in the positions of supporting a learner on this pathway. This should include action in ITE.

Dedicated resources should be made available to support this aspect of the development and system leadership will be required for it to become embedded in Scottish education. This should include a digital platform that will allow a learner to gather evidence of achievement.

To ensure that the importance of this area of work is recognised, is well co-ordinated and has status, a promoted post should be established for those leading this work in schools and colleges.

To support the development of their Personal Pathway, learners should have supported opportunities to self-reflect on the skills and attributes they have developed. These discussions should take place across an academic year and throughout the Senior Phase

Schools and colleges already offer a wide range of experiences for learners beyond courses. Having this as part of the SDA, recognises the importance of this part of the curriculum for learners and builds it as an aspect of education to which every learner is entitled. Learners should be supported to self-reflect on the skills and attributes they have developed. This will be essential in preparing for transition to employment, volunteering or to further or higher education. Learners should have opportunities for reflective personal discussion across an academic year and throughout the Senior Phase.

The Personal Pathway will not be graded but evidence contained within it will be subject to authentication processes.

4.7 The Importance of Equity in the Personal Pathway

Although there was a great deal of support for the idea of a Personal Pathway and a recognition of the importance of introducing a more personalised aspect to qualifications, significant concerns were raised about how the Personal Pathway might be made equitable. The IRG and CCGs spent considerable time debating issues of equity. We came to the conclusion that the inclusion of a Personal Pathway would shine a light on existing inequality rather than create more inequality.

“I do understand the concerns around equity, but I suppose I think about it, young people with greater access to opportunities through school or out of school will still have that access, whether a light is shown on it by the use of a Diploma or not. When learners come to write their personal statements or job applications or complete CVs, they'll be able to bring that richness of opportunities. Rather than shy away from that, does this challenge us as a system to create greater equity of access of opportunities for young people in a better engagement with young people to help them understand how their role, perhaps as a young carer or in undertaking activities out of school. We are allowing them to acknowledge the kind of skills that are going to be really significant in their future and could actually maybe be richer than somebody who's got access to lots of clubs and activities.” – (CCG member - Public & Third Sector Employers)

There were two options. We could remove the Personal Pathway from the Diploma which would leave the situation where some learners had few, if any, opportunities to learn in this personal space or we could keep it and tackle the issue of equity. We chose the latter. Making sure that every learner in Scotland has opportunities to engage in social, cultural, well-being and economic activities is a crucial part of what it means to be educated in Scotland. This should be an entitlement for every learner.

4.8 Enhancing Decisions on Future Pathways

Within the Personal Pathway learners should have opportunities to consider what future pathways they might follow post-school/college. Colleges, employers and universities emphasise the importance of the contribution made to education by the components of the Personal Pathway. For example, learners should be able to reflect on their learning and their wider achievements. This might include their interests, the ways in which they contribute to their communities or to broader society and the thinking they have done about the kinds of future study or employment that might best build on their skills and aptitudes. Universities commented that the Personal Pathway was a way of bringing together the different aspects of the SDA.

There are new opportunities to enhance all learners’ career experiences. The Career Review (Smith, 2023) proposes a new approach to the career ecosystem, from information, advice and guidance, to brokerage and careers education, to support learners, schools and colleges in this process. This includes opportunities to develop skills in entrepreneurship. Stewart & Logan (2023) focus in particular on women, commonly underrepresented in this field. These opportunities should be taken.

The challenge of obtaining opportunities for all learners in workplaces was one commonly raised during the Review. Technology offers opportunities for virtual workplace experiences through augmented reality. However, actual location in the workplace provides a powerful experience and one that will help learners make better informed decisions about future study or employment.

Building a system where every learner has access to workplaces cannot be the responsibility of a few employers. Many SMEs nationally are involved in working very positively with schools and colleges and a number of large employers in the private and public sectors have high quality programmes that offer work experience. However, for this to become a national offer, work needs to be done to widen the base of those involved. Having workplace opportunities is good for learners. It also offers opportunities for employers, for example, where staff have opportunities to develop and expand their mentoring skills.

Learners’ choice of what to apply for post school, college, university or employment would be better informed by having opportunities to reflect on their learning from a personal perspective. Mentoring conversations will improve the quality of future decisions, if learners are encouraged to think about their reasons for choosing courses or subjects, how these link to the projects they choose to undertake and how their interests and experiences relate to the decisions they take about future Pathways.

If experiences for the Personal Pathway are to be available for all learners, the opportunities available for careers guidance and related workplace experiences would have to be increased significantly. It is beyond the remit of the Review to make a formal recommendation but it would be a sensible step to bring together the Government, educationalists, business and industry to identify how careers advice and workplace experiences might be available for every learner in the future.

4.9 Project Learning

In this area of the SDA, learners have the opportunity to use the knowledge and skills they have developed in their Programmes of Learning, to tackle a significant question or a problem that is important to them. Through this experience, learners will have opportunities to develop skills that are essential for their future progress.

“Skills are the global currency of the 21st century in which working life will become increasingly networked. Work will be increasingly variable and done on a project basis with contributors with complementary skills working in teams. These skills require development through a change of classroom practice and should be developed at all levels throughout education.” (RSE, 2023)

The importance of integrating knowledge and skills was a dominant theme in the Review. The new model recognises the increasing importance in society of learning across different areas of the curriculum and proposes the inclusion of Project Learning in the Diploma.

4.10 What do we mean by Project Learning?

Project Learning will provide an opportunity for learners to bring together different experiences in an area that is of relevance and real interest to them. It will be part of the educational experience of every learner. The Vision for the future of qualifications and assessment states that the system should be inclusive. Project Learning will, therefore, be for all learners though the experience will be different for different learners.

Some learners may tackle a global challenge, one that they see as crucial for the future of society, for example, climate change, artificial intelligence or conflict. This aligns with recent work in learning for sustainability.

They will tackle an area that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single subject. The description of this approach to Project Learning has much in common with what is commonly described as Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL). Subjects are not disciplines but they are the way learners in secondary schools encounter different areas of academic study.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh highlights:

“Interdisciplinary learning (IDL) cannot be properly understood without a clear understanding of the nature, benefits and limitations of disciplines.” (RSE, 2023).

Drawing on their learning in individual subjects, learners will focus on a project which invites them to mobilise knowledge, methodologies and concepts from a range of subjects to bring different perspectives to the project they are tackling.

“Disciplines may also be inward-looking and fail to address new and relevant real-world problems, whereas major new insights and breakthroughs increasingly occur in interdisciplinary areas.” (RSE, 2019)

For other learners, the project may be concerned with a more local challenge where learners bring together different areas of their curriculum to tackle a problem that matters to them, for example, how to challenge misconceptions of disability. For learners with severe and complex learning needs, Project Learning may be designed on an individual basis.

However, for all learners Project Learning will enable them to use knowledge and to develop skills, for example, critical thinking, problem solving, application of knowledge, creativity, teamwork and leadership.

The national curriculum body, SQA, is currently undertaking work in this area. They shared the definition they are currently using Interdisciplinary Learning: ambitious learning for an increasingly complex world.

“Interdisciplinary Learning is a planned experience that brings disciplines together in one coherent programme or project. The different disciplines plan and execute as one. These disciplines might fall within one curricular area (for example. languages, the sciences) or between several curricular areas. IDL enables children and young people to

  • learn new knowledge or skills, and develop new understanding of concepts;
  • draw on prior knowledge, understanding and skills and;

  • transfer and apply that collective knowledge to new problems or other areas of learning.”

This is different from learning, for example, which takes place when several disciplines or subjects are linked up through a common theme or topic, but the student’s experience and educator planning is discreet, or separate in each discipline or subject. This can be referred to as multi-disciplinary learning.”

The National Qualifications Body, SQA, has a wide range of courses that could support work in this area. There are exciting examples of ‘next generation’ Higher National qualifications, and these should form part of future discussions about Project Learning.

During the Review we heard conflicting views as to whether the term interdisciplinary learning or multidisciplinary learning should be used. Some people believed that neither term was helpful. There remains work to be done in Project Learning to develop a language with which everybody is comfortable.

The new national bodies for the curriculum and qualifications should work together with partners, including teachers, lecturers, employers, and universities to develop examples of what Project Learning could look like in practice in different contexts.

Work currently underway with the National Co-design IDL group led by Education Scotland would be an effective starting point to support the more intensive work as needed. In particular, we understand the work being done by schools in the North East of Scotland with the Wood Foundation as part of the Excelerate Programme provides Project Learning.

Employers and learners are strongly supportive off the proposal to have Project Learning as part of the SDA (as indicated in the Review’s Interim Report). Employers place particular value on people who are able to demonstrate the skills that would be shown in Project Learning and learners are keen to build these skills and carve out a degree of independence in terms of how a project could be taken forward. Similarly, these meta-skills are the basis of graduate attributes that learners moving on to university will have to develop as part of their courses.

4.11 Project Learning in Practice

During the visits we made to schools and colleges, we saw a wide range of different education projects and programmes. We were impressed by the level of enthusiasm for these projects amongst learners and staff and learners’ achievements were impressive.

However, ideas of project and IDL have been part of the discourse of Scottish education since the inception of CfE. Yet, not every learner in Scotland has such opportunities. Given the importance of this area to learners, colleges, universities and employers, it is crucial that we make these opportunities available for all learners in the Senior Phase. To make sure that the importance of this aspect of the Diploma is recognised, time should be made available for this work and teachers, as appropriate, should be supported to develop the skills to engage with more open enquiry. The recent Sixth Form Matters (2023) report noted that:

“Many jurisdictions have introduced the option for students to do a major project as part of their certificate programme, initiatives that are not dissimilar in intent to the EPQ in England. In practice these initiatives are more a work-around than a solution. If unexamined, these options are sometimes judged as second tier. If examined, students can find in them a familiar and often unappealing organisation of the learning process, with subject matter defined by syllabuses, delivered within timetables designed for academic study, and taught and assessed by teachers trained in academic subjects.” (Sixth Form Matters 2023)

This paragraph forms a suitable warning. This part of the SDA must be maintained as a priority, time must be given to support learning and teaching in this area and both learners and educators must be empowered to make this element of the SDA a rewarding experience.

Recommendation 9: Use descriptions of knowledge progression and the universal skills framework, in the recently published Skills Review (Withers, 2023), if accepted, to inform the design of Project Learning in the SDA. They should also be used as the basis for assessment.

Recommendation 10: Include the Project Learning element as a prerequisite for the award of the Diploma. It is an entitlement and must be available to all learners.

  • Project Learning should be an identifiable and distinct part of the curriculum, building on programmes of study. Individual learners must be allowed to apply their knowledge and skills across subjects to tackle a challenge. Project Learning can be undertaken through a mixture of group and individual work. However, it should be individually assessed.
  • Project Learning should take place throughout the Senior Phase. A learner could choose to investigate a new project each year or build on the same project as they progress through the Senior Phase. The level of challenge should steadily increase and achievement should be linked to SCQF levels and credits to demonstrate progression. While the focus of this Review is on the Senior Phase it may be beneficial to promote Project Learning in both primary schools (where it already exists in a range of forms) and in BGE so as to support learners for the type of experience to come.
  • Project Learning will be internally assessed within educational settings, with external verification built into the process to ensure shared standards across the country. Processes will be rigorous but light touch.
  • There will be flexibility and different pathways within the Project element to promote inclusion particularly for learners with additional support needs, learners who are neurodivergent, learners who are highly able and those who may be educated at home. While some learners may undertake complex, long-term enquiry into major global issues, for learners the project element of the Diploma may involve drawing together educational experiences to help build confidence, for example; in terms of communication or independent travel.
  • The focus of a project investigation should be chosen by the learner. We acknowledge it may be necessary to start with a more defined offer in the early stages of the Project element of the Diploma. Examples will be developed collaboratively by teachers and lecturers, local authorities, researchers, national agencies and learners. These examples will be made available to schools across the country for them to adapt to their own circumstances.

In discussing the inclusion of Project Learning within the Diploma it has been suggested that this could reduce subject choice in schools or diminish the importance of subjects. The Review does not propose a reduction in the importance of Programmes of Study nor that time spent on learning in them needs to change. Different schools and colleges will find different ways to do this. Schools and colleges already involved in this kind of activity have adopted a number of strategies. Some build it into existing arrangements for timetables; others suspend the timetable for one afternoon per week. Some schools suspend the normal timetable for a week at key points in the school year to allow the space to be created for collaborative, problem solving activities.

There are further possibilities. For example, some practitioners suggest that a move away from an external examination at National 5 and a reduction in terms of the weighting of final external examinations in Higher and Advanced Higher courses will help create time in schools that will allow Senior Phase learners to undertake meaningful Project Learning. Others have suggested that a reduction in focus on examination preparation and use of the parts of the school year normally set aside for prelims and study leave could help to create time. One further opportunity raised with us, is to explore the flexibility around time offered within the SCQF framework.

There is work to be done by those with expertise in the organisation of time in education settings to find creative ways to approach this and to provide as examples for others to consider.

4.12 Parity of Esteem

For many years Scottish education, in common with many other countries internationally, has debated how best to achieve parity of esteem between general pathways (sometimes called academic), and professional and technical pathways (sometimes called vocational). This debate has carried on through this Review. Although we recognise that parity of esteem has been a long-term aspiration in Scottish Education, it has been difficult to achieve because lack of parity is commonly a consequence of views that are deeply ingrained in society. This Review firmly rejects the assertion that a successful Senior Phase experience should be measured only in terms of the completion of National Qualifications. We all learn differently, and we all have different goals. Our belief, as reflected in the Review’s Vision and Principles, is that a very broad range of achievement should be celebrated in the award of the SDA.

We recognise the importance of language in this debate. Many individuals and organisations with which the Review has engaged argued that the continued use of the term ‘Higher’ influences behaviour across the education system. There is a strong perception that society expects both individual and school success to be measured in the number of Highers achieved and this skews the breadth of curriculum offered and undoubtedly weighs heavily in the choices learners make. This view is reflected in the Review’s Phase Three engagement where over two-fifths of respondents, mainly from schools and colleges, simply said ‘yes’ to the question ‘should all qualifications at the same level have the same name’.

Changing the language around the award of ‘Highers’ will not, in itself, change the way in which different types of qualification are viewed but, it was argued, it would send a strong signal that different qualifications taken by learners at the same SCQF level with the same credit points are equally highly regarded. However, it is also important to recognise that any change in respect of the language of qualifications must be weighed against the risk of undermining existing awards and damaging the currency of Scotland’s overall approach to qualifications. National Qualifications, and the Higher in particular, are well regarded nationally and internationally.

We recognise how challenging it is to tackle parity of esteem. There is no ‘silver bullet’ that will change society’s collective understanding about the relative value of qualifications. Alongside other recent reports (Withers, 2023), (Muir, 2022) we recognise the importance of the SCQF Partnership in helping learners, education settings and employers to understand the relative value of the complex range of qualifications available in Scotland. Our central recommendation in this area is that Scotland builds on the language of SCQF level to help provide a better understanding of different qualifications and how they relate to one another.

Putting Learners at the Centre (Muir, 2022) recommended that the SCQF Partnership should be brought into the proposed national agency for Scottish education in order that its framework and staff could play an enhanced role in planning learner journeys to provide greater parity of esteem. In responding to this recommendation The Scottish Government welcomed Professor Mur’s recognition of the value of the SCQF in driving forward a cohesive learner journey from early years to postgraduate study. They also accepted his premise that SCQF should be more strongly embedded within the education system. In proposing a change to the way in which qualifications are described, this Review seeks to begin to address the long-standing issue of parity of esteem. This proposed change will also help to strengthen the position of SCQF within Scottish education. It is supportive of the direction of travel suggested by Muir and the stated position of The Scottish Government. However, further work on the SCQF framework is required, particularly on the relationship between different qualifications within the same level. This work should be undertaken in partnership with key stakeholders in the field.

Recommendation 11: Enhance Parity of Esteem between types of qualifications by recognising as equal all qualifications at the same SCQF level with the same credit points

  • Scotland, should use the SCQF Level followed by name of the qualification in promotional literature and in recording of results.
  • All references to qualifications in promotional materials for learners, parents and carers and in information about subject choices, learner pathways and career opportunities should follow the same pattern:
    • SQF Level, Name of Award and Provider, Subject or Programme, Grade (as appropriate).
  • All owners of programmes, offering qualifications/awards in the Senior Phase should be expected to certificate these in a standard format.
  • Academic, vocational, professional and technical qualifications should all be included within the Programmes of Study element of the Diploma.
    • The inclusion of academic, professional and technical qualifications within the Programmes of Study element of the Diploma is, in itself, a strong driver for change as a Diploma will include all qualification types under a single award.
  • Ensure due attention is given to developing all three elements of the Diploma. The content of the Diploma will represent the individual achievement of all learners and will illustrate much more that the completion of programmes.



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