Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Wider Achievement Opportunities in School – David McClure

In the current debate relating to the rigour of exams and their place in assessment, it is universally recognised that pupil achievement comes from a wider range of activities than simply SQA accreditation for academic (and practical based) study. 

For within the school curriculum there is scope for pupils to achieve accreditation from a wider range of external providers as well as recognition from school based internal activities.  Indeed, there are many pupils for whom this recognition may be the only awards that they are likely to gain.  

I know from my own time as Rector of Madras College (in St Andrews) the senior school curriculum supported the delivery of a wide range of such activities, for example:

  • First aid in the workplace (delivered by an external group) which then led to those pupil participants delivering Heartstart to S1 pupils;
  • An introduction to TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course delivered by St Andrews University; 
  • A range of College based FAs;
  • Certificates of attendance and participation for our programme;
  • Higher Psychology delivered by college;
  • A resilience/leadership programme (evaluated by the presentation (in small groups) of a new phone App concept to an audience) delivered and evaluated by CAPOD* of St Andrews University;
  • Duke of Edinburgh programmes;
  • Work experience;
  • Youth achievement awards certificated by SQA;
  • Science, Language and Sport Scotland ambassadors for S6 pupils to support our link primary school leadership experience;
  • A range of school competitions such as Maths Challenge, Top of the Bench (Chemistry), Donald Dewar debating;
  • Rotary involvement such as the Burns club awards for singing and recital;

Many of the above also contribute to a SALTIRE award.

It is of course the case that every school can tell a similar story of participation and accreditation beyond the “traditional” range of SQA examination awards, and this will, to an extent, rely on the school’s size, internal community and external surroundings; but it will also rely on the school’s commitment – and its ability – to build a curriculum model which will deliver a suitable range of activities.  That school leaders have this commitment and ability is fundamental to the quality of awards which the young people will experience, and equally important, will value.  As well as addressing the question of commitment and ability, school leaders need to address three other questions: Range of activities, Equity, and Assessment (which is distinct to the current debate concerning whether accreditation should be based on external examination).

In considering the question of having the commitment and ability to build a suitable curriculum model incorporating wider achievement, the most important element to be agreed is that wider accreditation and recognition should not be implemented as a “bolt on” element. 

I must admit that in the past I have been guilty of doing this initially but I have then gone back and redrafted the design of the senior school curriculum for the next session so that timetabling has this element built into the school week, which includes room allocation, staff allocation (involving recruitment and surplus) and number of period allocation; as well as consortium arrangements, consultation, knowledge of local links and researching pupil voice and need.  All the aforementioned are crucial parts of the thinking process around this element of the curriculum design and if addressed at the early stages (which I always felt was the December to March time frame) ensured that the school could offer a balanced range of wider accreditation and/or recognition to all pupils.  It should be noted that distinct to this, the SQA subject choice offer needed to be ready in detail by March.  The wider accreditation choice could have its core detail ready simultaneously but there was always scope for change to some elements after March – which on occasion was also true of the SQA choice frame.  It becomes self-evident that to deliver a quality range of wider outcomes for pupils, a commitment and creative ability on the part of the school management (and partners) is essential.

As stated, the range and levels of wider achievement will be influenced by the availability of partners and staff and by pupil choice; all of which will in part depend on where a school is sited.

I would argue that it is within the range and levels question that there is opportunity to deliver a balanced range, not just of accredited qualification but also of experience and/or recognition.  This is where school ambassadors, choirs, debaters, charity volunteers, school competition involvement, etc can be encouraged not only through short course options (up to 4 per year for example) but also through lunchtime or after school options to secure experience and/or recognition. 

The challenge is to create a choice of accreditation and recognition ranging from participation in a school activity to attending a college-based Foundation Apprentice course, and to do this within an organised and supported timetabled framework which is an integrated part of the overall school timetabled framework. 

If a balanced range of choice can be achieved then the offer of wider achievements will support all pupils from the most academically able to the least able, from the most practical skilled to the least skilled – offering something suitable for all.

In considering the question of equity on wider achievement, I would argue that equity is not about lowering or raising expectations, it is about fairness, which is giving everyone fair opportunity to be recognised in the pathway of their choice.  It is not every pupil who wants to go on to further academic study (from HNC to degree) and it is not every pupil who wants to end their studies on leaving school. 

It is, however, in my experience, that every pupil wants to leave school with the security of progression to the next stage of their life.  In supporting this need, the wider achievement agenda can deliver recognised qualification, recognised practical/work experience and/or a recognition of participation, thus not just offering possible further attainment, but more importantly offering a recognition of character and commitment.  If done well this can give an essential outcome which will be relevant to all in their progression beyond school.  In addition, I would add that for wider achievement to deliver in full, the school must not only value all wider achievements on offer, but also ensure that this value is made clear to all.  In my experience that means much more than giving a token recognition of achievement through an awards (or equivalent) ceremony, it means that the Head Teacher and other senior managers demonstrate their recognition of value on an almost daily basis by visiting the wider achievement classes/activities and engaging pupils in genuinely interested conversion about their work – in their place of study.  Indeed, all of that will require time, but what better use of HT time is there, than openly and regularly demonstrating what they value – especially to those who need their reassurance most.

On the ultimate question of assessment of wider achievement, the range of assessment is large and varied.  For some courses the assessment will be no more than a reference of participation, attendance and effort, for some others it will be ongoing course work.  For other activities such as the Burns singing competitions it will be a performance against other participants and where a course is of a serious academic nature it may be coursework and a final exam.  I do not believe that assessment of wider achievement could have a single, “one size fits all”, or that all achievement requires to be assessed through an exam; rather I believe that each assessment tool should be appropriate to the nature of the activity or course undertaken.  Unfortunately, the current situation with these important awards is that the extent of recognition they receive is very much dependent on the “eye of the beholder” – which in this instance is any potential employer or admissions officer.  It would be a great pity if this imbalance of recognition were to be lost in the current “exams” debate, at a time when effort and debate could also be promoting that wider achievement awards be universally recognised as an accepted and meaningful standard of accreditation by all partners.

*Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development.

David McClure was Head Teacher of Madras College until August 2020.