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English group takes a new line on literature

Neil Munro outlines the latest reports from the Higher Still consultations. Pupils will be allowed extended literature or language lessons under new post-16 proposals outlined by the specialist Higher Still group on English and communication.

The original plans for revamping post-16 English, which turned out to be the most controversial of the subject reports, have been issued for a second time in an attempt to reassure schools that literature is not taking a back seat to vocational communication modules.

"We took fully on board the reactions to the first consultation," George Smuga, head of North Berwick High and chair of the English group, said. "We have now provided a fuller rationale for the subject stressing the relationship between English and communication, given a stronger slant to literature, and spelt out a more obvious degree of choice."

The revised document stresses that "literature in its many manifestations is crucial", both in stimulating the imagination and as "a powerful agent" in developing language. This is a clear rebuke to last year's responses to the first English report which displayed "polarisation of views and an unhelpful distinction between English and communication" (the title of the course survives the changes).

A new structure to allow schools and colleges more flexibility will comprise four units: the first two requiring 40 hours of compulsory study of language and literature, the third lasting 20 hours of specialist study in either one or the other, and the fourth another 20-hour option involving oral communication with group discussion or with critical listening.

This structure will apply at Higher level as well as the three sub-Higher stages, now renamed Access, Intermediate I and Intermediate II. There will be a different approach for Advanced Higher.

The group mounts a strong defence of its decision to assess oral communication, which is a feature of Standard grade and Scotvec modules but not of the existing Higher. Teachers had major reservations about workload and questioned the feasibility of teaching oral skills to higher levels. The revised document acknowledges this scepticism by setting out "further justification".

The group says oral proficiency after the age of 16 is a fundamental skill demanded by employers, universities and society at large. Teachers are experienced in handling it at other stages and the report concludes: "There is manifest evidence in many aspects of life of sophisticated oral communication and units and courses exist which successfully teach these skills to high levels."

Mr Smuga pointed out that the group had agreed that oral work should become part of one of the 20-hour units rather than a discrete element. Discussion in literature and language classes could provide a vehicle for assessing oral competence, he added.

Other changes to the current post-16 English curriculum have been retained: set texts will be abandoned in the Higher course (though not at Advanced Higher), a Scottish text will be mandatory in the literary study unit, and the preparation of a report will become part of course work rather than the external Higher exam.

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