A cornerstone of learning

Charles Smith says that the group award is an essential component of Higher Still

Of all the many elements emanating from the Higher Still initiative, none will be more important than the Scottish Group Award. The award, allowed its proper place, will give a structure to the senior school that has been lost over the past 10 to 15 years. The reasons for this deficiency are located in the failure to respond to ongoing changes in the student attainment profile and to an ever increasing and, too often, uncoordinated range of subjects made available in each school, to each pupil.

The Highers had been the largely exclusive domain of the high achievers. The senior school syllabus reflected an academic list: English, maths, classics, science, modern languages, history and geography. This became increasingly irrelevant for the rest, whose educational needs had been vaguely defined as much the same, but at a simpler level.

The courses available to them had developed largely on a single subject basis, with the promotion of a substantial number of new Highers and a plethora of modules, both stand-alone and in cognate groupings. Schools had, at best, reacted to rather than anticipated the change in school population and had not geared up to the new challenges. Almost school by school and, indeed, department by department, responses to these changing circumstances were piecemeal. This meant pupils were faced with pick and mix curricula, not it should be emphasised of poor courses, but of courses that were not developed within the framework of a coherent and focused national policy for the different strands of a significantly changed client group.

To turn to the Higher Still initiative: in its initial stages, and somewhat ominously in view of what has been said above, it asked subject panels to draw up provision, in their fields, which would cater for all attainment levels. Questions about curriculum structure and certification were posed to individual subject panels without presenting them with an overarching rationale of principles and policy, defining a favoured structure of education and training in the last two years of secondary schooling. Panel responses were, notwithstanding, thorough and exhaustive.

Further, substantial proposals for comprehensive schemes of guidance and assessment gave strong cause for the belief that each student, post Higher Still, would be clear about choice and progress. In all of this, the opportunity for the school to cater for the high or low achieving student who wished to move from one teaching group to another at a different level would be significantly enhanced.

However, it will none the less be of prime importance that the potential of the group award be realised, if coherence is to be introduced to what might yet be, for too many pupils, a mish-mash of disjointed courses and units. Too great an emphasis cannot be placed on the importance of teacher and pupils having a coherent view of what they are attempting over the last years of secondary schooling: namely, participation in courses of instruction which can boast a rationale, which can claim a title and a design: science and maths; arts and humanities. Education is an endeavour whose individual elements add up to significantly more than the sum of its parts. There are those who are so immersed in schematics of targets, tasks and outcomes that they have, on occasion, forgotten this truth. Their logical (but narrow) point of view can promote quantification and precision to a degree that those elements become the sole imperatives in defining success.

On not a few occasions, over the past 10 or 20 hectic developmental years, attractive and, indeed, what could be described as essential course elements have been downgraded or removed from the certification process and almost automatically from the syllabus, because of their unquantifiability.

To be accurate is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition to getting it right. The understanding and mastery of a discipline do not occur simply and necessarily in the course of mechanistically achieving targets. Certainly primary schools and secondaries in the first four years make a good stab at presenting a curriculum in which pupils are presented with the possibility of acquiring a broad view of who and where we are; of the condition we are in and why. The same can scarcely be said of the bran-tub of courses that make up not a few senior school course options.

The group award will if given support and put to proper use, go far towards the realisation of appropriate, coherent and characterful courses of instruction in senior school. But there is on past form one group of educationists whose support in this area will be vital to making this happen: those in the universities who decide the conditions under which pupils enter higher education. In the dialogues they are or will be holding with the Higher Still Development Unit on the subject of group awards, they may well take the view that there are so many would-be students that a further element of sophistication in the factors which they take into account is unnecessary. They will continue to count Higher passes and grades, talk to students, receive reports from schools and make decisions. This ought not to happen, for the group award will lead to better and more coherently educated pupils.

Further, the levels of award - pass, merit and distinction - will generate the competition and the impetus to do well which was present to a marked degree in other circumstances, in previous decades and this at each of the main levels of attainment. The pointage system, too, will give to directors of studies ready indicators of solid ability and application and may, therefore, make necessary only brief scrutiny of credits gained before allowing entry to high-flyers, a saving of time when the selection pressure is on.

The strongest call of all to universities will or should be from schools for support in giving currency to the group award. Life will proceed as before for universities if they do not acknowledge the worth of the group award. But such a decision would render the award as nothing more than a piece of decorative tinsel: a presentational gimmick that has no market value. And, although what has just been said relates principally to those seeking entry to university, the imprimatur of universities upon the group award at Higher level will also add kudos to the award at the intermediate levels of attainment as will a like attitude by FE colleges.

It would be nice to think that what I have said has been unnecessary and that the door being knocked on is wide open. Yet, if memory is not failing, there have been times in the past when the universities went their own, sometimes surprising, way. The universities should take this opportunity to encourage the cultivation of the rounded intellect not only within their own groves but also in thickets of the secondary forests.

Charles Smith is rector of Airdrie Academy.

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