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Dash to Highers is too much, too young

Much is made of the problems in early secondary, yet there is a lack of rigorous analysis, says Judith Gillespie

It is so standard for any inspection, whether of secondary school or of a subject, to find weaknesses in S1 and S2 that one is tempted to believe inspectors have a template they download and simply fill in with the appropriate information. However, when only 5 per cent of schools get S1 and S2 really right, the scale of the failure is so large that it has to be a system failure rather than a school failure - and this is the view of the various teachers who were asked to comment on the recent HMIE report on mathematics.

The system failure arises because secondary schools accept pupils from a range of different primaries, all of which have tended to interpret the 5-14 levels slightly differently and covered different parts of the curriculum with greater or lesser thoroughness. In order to move all the children on, the secondary has to take time first to identify what the new intake really knows and then to fill in any gaps. The HMIE reports identify this process as not making progress because they work simply on 5-14 attainment levels, not gap-filling, as evidence of progression.

In contrast, the recently published survey from the Assessment of Achievement Programme gives a much more insightful picture. It identifies pupils' attainment at four levels: less than basic, basic, secure or with strengths. It moves beyond looking simply at pupils' ability to get the 5-14 grades, to understanding how well they have achieved the grade.

In the process, the survey confirms what teachers say - that having a level D does not mean the same thing in all cases. So, to quote from the report about pupils who have just passed level D at the basic level, they find themselves "in considerable difficulty as they encounter the greater challenges of level E work".

This also makes sense of the declining percentage of pupils who are secure at each stage as the levels increase. It leads the AAP survey to advise that "consolidation of study is required to ensure that secure knowledge and understanding or considerable strengths can be demonstrated across the different attainment outcomes". This would suggest that the review process that many secondary schools undertake with the new intake of pupils is the right course of action.

Secondary schools are starting to respond to HMIE's unrelenting criticism of progress in S1 and S2. They are increasing the level of challenge by running Standard grade and equivalent courses a year earlier, in S2 and S3, with the idea of then offering the Higher over two years in S4 and S5.

However, this pattern presents a number of problems. For a start, it ignores the AAP's analysis of the problem, and the recommendation that there should be consolidation in learning, and continues the process of rushing pupils to the next stage. Moreover, the results from Keith Grammar, where S3 pupils sat Standard grade this year, would suggest that the pattern identified in the AAP survey (that pupils whose knowledge is not secure at one level are not able to meet the challenge of the next stage) is continuing.

Much was made, in that school's case, of the fact that the proportion gaining good grades from the S3 cohort matched the proportion gaining good grades from the companion S4 cohort. Rather less was made of the fact that the proportion failing to get five Standard grades at the appropriate level doubled from 17 per cent to 34 per cent.

Moreover, if Standard grade and Higher courses are taught over two years, what happens to pupils who fail at the end of S3? Are they expected to move on to a two-year Intermediate course which they complete at the end of S5 with no chance to do a two-year Higher? And what does anyone do in S6? The able pupils will be challenged to do a one-year Advanced Higher after meandering through two years taking the Higher course. If the school is programmed to teach Higher over two years, will it really have the capacity to teach the same range of Highers over one year for those who might need this provision in S6? At present, 29 per cent of Higher passes are gained in S6.

Able pupils tend to overcome all obstacles that are placed in their way. So whatever scheme is introduced, some will succeed. But the contrasting messages from the AAP survey and the HMIE report on mathematics need careful consideration. It's time the various think-tanks started to do some analytical thinking, and it is also time we stopped making the attainment of more and more qualifications at a younger and younger age the holy grail of education.

Oh, there is one footnote to all this that is worth highlighting. In the HMIE report, it is noted: "In the 2003 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) survey, Scotland's performance at P5 was around the international average. It was, however, significantly higher than the international average at S2".

Judith Gillespie is development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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