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View from the Street: From sandpits to seminars: Why we need to rethink how we guide young people through Scotland’s education system

An image of giant books stacked in front of a large chalk board. Children and young people are climbing up via ladders and standing on top of the books trying to solve an equation on the board.

John Cumming

John Cumming

Senior associate

Think back to when you left school. How did you feel? Excited? Relieved? Nervous? I was typical and felt a combination of all this. But I had a secret edge over my peers.

A year before posing awkwardly for my matriculation card photo, I studied at Glasgow Caledonian University’s Advanced Higher Hub, a flagship educational bridging programme that provides young people with the opportunity to take subjects which are not on their school curriculum.

Going into university, I had confidence in my ability, confidence which many young Scots walk through the corridors of academia without. However, I wasn’t alone. This unique year-long university experience equipped me – and hundreds of others since 2013 – with life and learning skills that helped the successful transition to higher education.

Now, tragically, this hub is set to close, and with it an opportunity which the next generation of young people will not have.

This is important because the attainment gap – the difference in performance between students from the most deprived areas to the least – has proved a tough nut to crack for government.

Supporting young people through educational transitions is key if we are to close this gap. This includes moving from nursery to primary school, and primary to secondary.

In recent weeks, Glasgow MSP Kaukab Stewart has brought forward proposals to raise the school starting age from four to six, with a play-based kindergarten phase introduced for three to six-year olds. As well as bringing Scotland into closer alignment with successful international models, it would standardise the learning experience for young people at the start of their educational journey.

Sitting closer to the end of this journey, Glasgow’s advanced higher hub was an initiative which fuelled a massive rise in the number of Glasgow pupils achieving advanced higher qualifications, with 70 per cent of students coming from Scotland’s most deprived communities. In 2018, the then education secretary John Swinney lauded the hub and its staff, noting that it had been particularly beneficial for “learners from schools in disadvantaged areas”.

I witnessed, first hand, the transformational impact it had on those around me, with some students heading to Oxford and Cambridge. Today, I know other young professionals who had a smoother experience at university as a direct result of the opportunity they had in their last year of school.

Budgetary pressures and a wider review mean that schools are now being supported to deliver these qualifications locally. There’s an argument for this alternative model, which would mean that pupils avoid travelling to study their chosen subjects. The reality, though, is that the unique experience of learning in a university environment cannot be replicated in a school.

Glasgow’s advanced higher hub is an example of how we can fine-tune transitions within education, and tackle the attainment gap as a result. We need to place more value on these examples of excellence within Scottish education and have a serious discussion about how they can be replicated elsewhere.

The move from secondary school, to college, university or work can be a particularly swollen river to cross. Scotland has a good story to tell here, with a record number of leavers going on to positive destinations. Despite this, it can sometimes feel like while some are ferried over this crossing, others are forced to swim against the current.