The 5-14 honeymoon is over

There are three schools of thought about the earlyyears in secondary schools, report Mary Simpson and Jonquil Goulder

Responding succinctly to the question "How is the implementation of 5-14 progressing in secondary schools?" is rather like trying to deal with the question "What is the climate like in America?" How can one summarise the diversity of responses and practices which have resulted from the requirements of the programme? Five years after the publication of the subject guidelines, the implementation is "well under way" in almost all mathematics and English departments and is judged to be "substantially complete" by 58 per cent and 32 per cent of principal teachers respectively. But the principal teachers of other curricular areas now indicate that the implementation of their guidelines is considerably behind the stage they predicted in our 1994 survey.

In half of the schools surveyed in the autumn of 1996, it seems that most other curricular guidelines are at the very earliest stages of implementation, that of discussion and awareness raising, and the majority of headteachers are satisfied with this level of progress. The exception is science, which most schools now report as having advanced into formal implementation. As for reporting, half of the mathematics and English departments now include a descriptor in 5-14 terms of pupils' attainments and development needs or next steps, but the majority of other subject areas retain their previous formats and as a consequence reports to parents now comprise a confusing mixture of grades, numbers, letters and scales. The accessibility of primary school records for subject teachers has improved. However, their consistency, reliability and relevance are frequently considered suspect.

For many schools the honeymoon period for primary-secondary liaison appears to be over, and some secondary staff now complain of the insensitivity of their primary colleagues to their needs and problems. Nevertheless, looking in greater detail at what has been achieved by individual departments, it is clear that a variety of significant changes relevant to the overall aims of the programme have been undertaken, even if many of these were reported to us as not having been prompted by the requirements of the programme.

In a range of subject departments, profiling has been developed in innovative ways to allow pupils to have fuller engagement than previously with planning and managing their learning and achievements, and the learning outcomes intended from many classroom experiences are now identified and discussed. In a number of curricular areas, for the first time, what is offered to pupils in S1-S2 amounts to a "course" rather than a series of unconnected episodes of teaching.

Differentiation has been tackled in a range of subject areas: 62 per cent of learning support teachers report an improvement for the low attaining pupils in social subjects and 49 per cent in science. Most mathematics and English departments have considerably extended their differentiation practices. Staff report an increase in the use of differentiated materials (69 per cent and 79 per cent respectively), an increase in teaching in ability groups (39 per cent and 32 per cent respectively), a decrease in mixed-ability grouping (30 per cent and 24 per cent) and a decrease in whole-class teaching (36 per cent and 25 per cent). More than 80 per cent of principal teachers in these two subjects believe that continuity and progression have been improved in their S1-S2 courses, and 90 per cent of the teaching staff are committed to the strategies they have been developing.

From their unique position of overview in their schools, more than 60 per cent of learning support teachers indicated that continuity, progression and the quality of learning and teaching have generally improved in first and second-year courses as a consequence of the implementation activities.

Another, perhaps overlooked, aim of the programme was "to assist teachers with current problems rather than making unnecessary changes in the overall design of the curriculum or in individual subject areas". The extent to which this aim has been achieved can perhaps be judged by the fact that more than 70 per cent of headteachers, learning support staff and principal teachers of mathematics and English indicated that the 5-14 programme had prompted them to take action on changes they wished to make anyway, and more than half agreed that the implementation had "been a professionally rewarding experience".

It would seem to us that there have been three quite distinct responses to 5-14 requirements. One group of staff have used it as an opportunity to think about learning within the context of their subject teaching and to share and develop professional practices which have been a twinkle in their professional eyes for some time. The 5-14 programme has given them the opportunity to strike out and experiment. A second group have implemented many of the requirements, but in a fairly superficial way - they have reordered the content of their subject curriculum, filled the gaps, relocated the resources and devised end-of-unit tests to share with their primary colleagues. They show little sign of reflective questioning or a sense that radical change is desirable or even necessary. The prompt for that may be our poor showing in the international league tables.

And there is a third group who have achieved very little since their subject guidelines were published, whether because of isolation and constraints within very small departments, the pressure of other demands, or a general commitment to the rejection of everything that the previous Government asked of them, regardless of its professional merits. "I would like to say it hasn't, but in reality it has assisted us," said one headteacher of the 5-14 programme.

It is possible to hold the pessimistic view, particularly given the views of the last of these three groups, that little further progress will be made in the implementation now that the demands of the more prestigious Higher Still programme loom on the horizon, but perhaps a few other items in the legacy of the previous administration will act as continuing prompts to further action.

First, the power of parents. Grown familiar through the primary years with the structured and informative 5-14 reporting format, they will not long be content with the current chaos and confusion in the assessment and reporting systems of S1-S2. And second, client choice. There was a time when most pupils couldn't wait to leave school and, for all but a few, this signalled the end of their education. This is no longer the case. The majority now remain at school beyond the minimum leaving age, and there is a growing recognition that the learning process needs to continue throughout the working life.

Schools may find themselves increasingly in competition in the post-16 arena with further education colleges, many of which are planning to secure students by offering an attractive range of Higher Still courses. Schools have only four years to convince young people that they offer a context for fulfilling and effective learning. It would be ironic if, in their dash to raise a complex edifice of Higher Still courses, they neglected to secure a sound foundation in S1-S2.

Professor Mary Simpson and Jonquil Goulder of Northern College undertook an evaluation, funded by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, of the implementation of the 5-14 programme in secondary schools, 1991-97.

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