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Don't let them stitch us up;Opinion

Moves to integrate the social subjects are more about easier timetabling than better learning, warns Henry Maitles

DEBATE ABOUT the integration of social subjects has caused some confusion in The TES Scotland over the holidays. There is no doubt that the handling of new Higher Still subjects like philosophy and psychology will have to be examined by the profession and in particular by the General Teaching Council, but the debate over "integrated" delivery of social subjects in S1 and S2 should not be lumped in with this.

I have put inverted commas around "integrated" as I think it has been used in a cavalier fashion by some correspondents. What is being proposed is not some discussed, common, integrated course but single-teacher delivery of history, geography and modern studies.

Were there to be collaboration at school level among three departments - over the teaching, for example, of the history, geography and politics of the United States or any other topic area - then there is no doubt of the advantages of such collaboration in developing an integrated experience for the pupils.

That, however, is not what the debate is about. Rather, we are being told that the three areas of social subjects can be taught by a single teacher who may have little interest in or knowledge of and certainly no certification in at least one and often two subjects.

Indeed, for many teachers of history and geography, it may have been in their own S2 that they last studied the other subject and many may not have studied politics and sociology (the main components of modern studies).

Some modern studies teachers may not have studied history or geography since S2. It is obvious to most that this must lead to a dilution in both subject content and learning experiences for the students, even if it aids timetabling for senior management.

The main argument in favour of single-teacher delivery of social subjects is that it will reduce the number of teachers seen by junior pupils in a week. Quite frankly, this is spurious. Even if it can be shown that reducing the number of teachers is a good thing - itself unproven at the moment, but let that go - the common method of rotation of social subjects does that anyway.

If looked at as reducing the number of teachers over a session, then at least one other variable must be taken into account: it is the quality of teaching and the learning experience that should be paramount, not the number of teachers. This is what becomes lost in this debate when the word "integration" is used.

Reducing the number of teachers seen by a pupil over a year from 14, say, to 12 can be a serious error if the quality of at least three of those subjects declines. Where is the improvement there? On the one hand there is justifiable pressure to stretch all pupils to their ability and make the learning experience as meaningful as possible and on the other an almost certain dilution of content and learning experience.

The enthusiasm of the teacher for their subject is often of central importance and with the best will in the world it will be less meaningful for pupils if the courses cut out such experiences as the role-play in history, the map reading and weather work skills in geography and the mock elections in modern studies because the non-experts find these areas too complex or uninteresting.

The danger is an even greater concentration on worksheets instead of involvement and discussion. Computer-based learning would in all probability be another victim as it was squeezed out in favour of the worksheet.

Further, bearing in mind that a major aim of social subjects is the development of positive values, the ability to give classes the freedom to debate and develop and clarify argument is in danger of being lost.

This is not just an academic exercise: it is well established that when supply teachers are forced to teach subjects other than their own and there are "please-takes" outwith departments the experience of pupils is not as meaningful or educationally desirable as it should be. Yet there is a desire to institutionalise such methods in social subjects.

It is little surprise that in a recent piece of research involving more than 50 per cent of modern studies departments all over Scotland only 12 per cent were positive about single-teacher delivery, with some 70 per cent opposed.

On the issue of rotation, which reduces the number of teachers seen by pupils at any one point in the year, 60 per cent were in favour and 25 per cent were against, although most of these were against single-teacher delivery but preferred a period a week throughout the sessions.

There is little doubt where teachers stand, and, although the research only covered modern studies departments, few would doubt that the other social subjects would give at least as strong and clear a response.

It may be desirable to have a debate around this dilemma, but at the very least teachers, parents and educationists should be clear about the issues.

Let's stop calling it "integrated" delivery: rather, it is single-teacher delivery. It will not raise standards, but it does make timetabling easier. Spurious grounds indeed.

Henry Maitles is head of modern studies, faculty of education, Strathclyde University.

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