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Don't close your ears to the need to change

The opponents of the new Higher English are too ready to denigrate the advocates of communication, says Mick Morris

IN EVERY secondary school staffroom in Scotland you can't hear yourself think because of the clicks of the tricoteuses and their noisy comments on Higher Still. Added to this, it seems every member of the fourth estate is volunteering to pull the tumbrils containing Messrs Tuck, Millar and Galbraith to the scaffold. But I am afraid David Cockburn's attack on the Scottish Qualifications Authority (TESS, September 29) is an article too far and needs to be challenged.

It was insulting in its references to Scottish further education and, more dangerously, conveyed a false impression of the "virtues" of the traditional Higher English examination. Since Mr Cockburn adopted such an ad hominem approach, I suppose I had better follow suit. I have more than 30 years' experience in FE. I began my career by teaching Higher English and A-level English and am currently teaching the last intake (or will it be?) for the traditional Higher English examination in spring next year.

I have also worked as an examiner for the former Scotbec, Scotec and Scotvec. I have taught undergraduates and postgraduates and I also have some experience of dealing with the media training needs of employers in Scotland in the broadcasting and newspaper industries. But enough of me - to the Cockburn article.

Once Mr Cockburn abandons the autobiographical approach and begins to present a broader analysis we are given three key elements: the inestimable value of external assessment, the different, culturally lower needs of further education and the renowned excellence of the (old) Higher English.

Terminal and external seem in his argument to present a model of excellence which has been abandoned. The Scottish Examination Board was judge and jury in its own cause and my limited experience with it as a marker led me to doubt if it was indeed the fount of all objective marking. External exams at Higher too often were set in a predicable tired format, subject to revision possibly once in a decade and bearing little relation to the needs of either employers or institutions like universities and, dare I say it, FE colleges.

Scotvec's "modular system so well suited to further education did not translate easily into the secondary sector". I'm not sure what to make of this phrase of Mr Cockburn's. Are schools simply unable to cope? I thought they were doing that all the time in Mr Cockburn's world.

But he goes on to explain that while "it is fairly easy to break down the skills required to maintain and develop customer service, it is an entirely different affair to adopt the same approach to assessing the skills required to understand and appreciate Hamlet". Understand and appreciate. Ah now I see - on the one side of the counter some drone, a product of the Gradgrind FE Institute (Scotland), serving ome precious soul who, if push comes to shove, can recite all of "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I". Two cultures right enough.

And why, pray, is "the modular approach so well suited to further education candidates"? FE in Scotland certainly delivers modular learning but also is often engaged in external professional examinations, research and exchange programmes with European Union institutions. We have moved on a little from the model he seems to propose. And anyway, I want to live in a world where someone can fix a burst pipe and has heard of the fourth "Eclogue" without being regarded as some kind of strange species.

Most specious of all is the argument that Higher Still "removes inspiration from English teaching and replaces it with arid, stultifying assessment". Again I don't see the two as being mutually exclusive. You can inspire and assess. Indeed you must.

Some of the rapidly growing myths about Higher English need also to be addressed. The specified book list, unchanged since 1994, represents the worse kind of ahistorical tokenism: one Shakespeare, the oh-so-familiar Burns, the "safe" Larkin and the inevitable Sunset Song. It is perfectly possible to pass Paper II Literature knowing only one short story and being capable of handling the practical criticism question: hardly very demanding. Predictable and dull and amply catered for by the model answer publishers. The review of personal reading has for long been a suspect element in this examination. The feeling persists that far too many students are coached in their written responses to their "chosen" literary master work.

But the real criticism of Higher English is the quality of student produced over the past 10 years. For much of that time I was involved in recruiting to an accredited, two-year print journalism course. The minimum entry requirement was three Highers with A-B in English. The standard of written work produced by these candidates was appalling: spelling, punctuation and grammar were rapidly addressed on the course by what was virtually a remedial English programme. If Mr Cockburn doesn't believe me, let him ask any local editor about the writing skills of would be journos.

Mr Cockburn also seems to gag at the thought of students being taught communication. Most employer surveys I have seen complain about the woeful lack of such skills. Higher English was and is notorious for ignoring oral communication as a skill of equal parity with writing and fundamental to our lives as humans. Even more so in an age of spin, lies and public deceit.

I know and admire many of the people who worked long and hard on the Higher Still programme. I still think their framework is an improvement on what went before. Any teacher working in communication will have as their goal one defined by Cato the Elder more than two millennia ago: to produce vir bonus dicendi peritus - a good man speaking well.

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