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Groups, bands and jazzed up Highers

To those of us who used to manage to tear ourselves away from the geometry homework in time to watch Top of the Pops, the word "group" means, basically, you know, sort of like BeatlesBeautiful SouthBoyzone (Select or replace as appropriate to age andor taste). In secondary education, however, the group, in the sense of the group award, seems set for introduction - or rather for reintroduction, a comeback.

There is no suggestion of anything fin de si cle about all this; but the records reveal an interesting pattern. At the end of the 19th century in Scotland, there was a similar move towards group awards, apparently to encourage attendance for a full course of secondary education, and to discourage the presentation of candidates at too early an age, with no reasonable hope of success. Group certificates were introduced. Certificates in individual subjects were discontinued in 1908.

For the first half of the 20th century, the principle of the group for the secondary leaving certificate held sway, although the requirements varied over the years: three Highers and two Lowers; two Highers and two Lowers (but Higher English, which was compulsory, included history); two Highers and three Lowers. These group awards were discontinued in 1950.

You may not have a group award yourself, but there are people around who possess such a certificate, if they sat their Highers and Lowers before 1950. Such people, if asked for their comments on the old order, are likely to offer an appropriate quotation from Tennyson.

They may commend the rigour of the old requirements, which ensured that a group certificate was highly valued, but they may criticise the great anxiety suffered by candidates who knew that failure in one subject meant failure in everything. They may describe an upper school haunted not only by the ghost from Hamlet but also by the spectre of "the group".

And they may regret the wastage rate in the middle range of pupils who abandoned formal education because they realised or feared that they would not be able to gain a complete group award. There may also have been a certain "dumbing down" of aspiration and attainment in the candidates presented: minimum in terms of requirements may have become the maximum in terms of attempt.

The system now being suggested would seem, more humanely, to allow a candidate to achieve individual subject awards even if a group award is not achieved. If group awards are available, however, pupils could be guided to choose their subjects and levels in such a way as to gain one of the specified group awards.

For the five types of Higher group likely to be taken in schools, the suggested requirements look familiar: three Highers and two "lowers" (good Standard grades or the new Intermediate 2s, in modern terms). Different choices of subject would lead to different types of group, and the bands gained (A, B, C) would determine pass, merit or distinction. For the two Advanced Higher groups, the suggested requirements are: two Advanced Highers and three Highers. There are also to be lower (Intermediate) groups, for candidates at the level of Standard grade. (The old Intermediate certificate was discontinued in the 1920s.) In the previous group system, there seems to have been emphasis on the desirability of Latin and arithmetic, perhaps to ensure some of the "core skills" which are being suggested as compulsory elements of the new group awards. If the group award becomes a reality again, care will have to be taken, as always, not to place excessive demands on pupils and teachers. Safeguards will have to be built into the system to ensure that the group specifications (or their interpretation and application by schools) do not force pupils into a choice of subjects unsuited to their own aptitudes and wishes. Core skills and coherence should not lead to an unnecessarily restrictive system. And it is probably inappropriate to pity, in advance, the students who could find themselves judged "one unit short of a group".

In the last years of the century, the suggestions for the revival of the group awards certainly offer a fascinating opportunity to learn from the sometimes harsh lessons of the past: to contrast and compare the new release with the previous versions which have been recorded for recall.

Bridget Loney, an examination officer with the Scottish Examination Board, writes in a personal capacity.

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