Skip to main content

Learning from the past?

Brian Boyd examines HMI's thinking on the development of the early secondary years

The publication of Achieving Success in S1S2 by the Inspectorate is a welcome contribution to the debate on educational standards. Predictably, it revisits the themes of recent HMI publications such as Achievement for All, and recommends more direct teaching, national testing and homework, while recommending the use of "rotation" within the timetable to reduce the number of teachers pupils meet, and the number of subjects taught for less than 160 minutes, in any one week.

But what is highly significant is that the report does not advocate "setting" by attainment, but instead urges schools and teachers to apply the six key principles of Achievement for All when devising courses in the early years, namely that courses: build on prior knowledge at the primary stage; lead to enduring and worthwhile outcomes which can be reported within the framework of levels and targets; deal with skills and knowledge which could not be taught successfully through other subjects; are allocated sufficient time for effective teaching to take place; provide a sound basis for subsequent study in depth; are supported by appropriate staff and resources.

Not only that but the report is robust in its insistence that "differentiation" is still the key to effective learning and teaching. Decisions about methods and composition of classes and groups should be made by teachers bearing in mind the need to take account of pupils' prior attainment, the different rates of progress they make and the importance of high expectations for all. All of this has to take place in the context of "an ethos of achievement" - and it is heartening to see echoes of the admirable HMI report The Education of Able Pupils P6 to S2 (1993).

It is, therefore, interesting to look back at the last report from HMI on the same subject, Learning and Teaching in the First Two Years of the Secondary School, which emerged in 1986 at a momentous time in Scottish education - a year which saw the publication of the 10-14 report and only a year before the publication of the consultation paper which launched the 5-14 development programme.

The two HMI reports, 11 years apart, have clear similarities. The contents pages are almost identical. Each has a foreword, anonymous in 1986, signed by the HMSCI in 1997. Both reports are based on evidence from inspections, although the current document refers to "a range of research findings", but, paradoxically does not have a section headed "List of references", unlike the 1986 report. Indeed the earlier document includes a thoughtful analysis of the aims of comprehensive education and ranges over recent publications, regional as well as national.

Perhaps the most obvious differences between the two reports (leaving aside the glossy paper and colour cover illustrations of the 1997 version) lie in the analysis of the problems of the early years curriculum. Achieving Success asserts: "A number of schools have developed integrated or co-ordinated courses at S1 and S2 but evidence about the effectiveness of such courses would not justify their widespread introduction across the curriculum." There is no indication of what kinds of evidence were looked at or how what was looked at was evaluated, and such a conclusion contrasts sharply with the analysis of a decade before - "At present the S1S2 curriculum appears to be conceived in subject terms, so there is a need to find a focus of curricular thinking within which systematic study of a number of key areas of human experience can proceed. The contribution to be made to such study by individual subject departments would then require to be determined" - and the conclusion that the S12 curriculum: is "more likely to make satisfactory progress by exploring the possibility of establishing inter-subject links of various kinds".

The answer may lie somewhere between the two. Integrated approaches do not deserve to be dismissed out of hand, nor should subjects as we know them disappear. Perhaps what we need across primary 6 to secondary 2 is gradualism - a planned move from generalism to specialism based on a clear educational rationale. And if there is genuinely a lack of evidence, then why not commission research? There are many clusters of schools which would be willing to take part in pilot projects and would be happy to be subject to independent evaluation.

Interestingly, the two documents take a different line on teaching, a fact partly explained by the developments in the intervening years. The 1997 report recommends more direct teaching as an antidote to individualised learning and "death by a thousand worksheets", while the 1986 report advocates less didactic teaching based on its finding that: "Few opportunities for S1S2 pupils to work together in groups to produce reports or project items of one kind or another were discovered."

Once again, it seems that a middle way is needed, and to be fair, both reports conclude that a range of differentiated strategies is required to meet the needs of all pupils.

Finally, the 1986 report concludes that "the school experience of pupils cannot be compartmentalised without loss". Presaging the Howie committee and Higher Still, it argues that "if new orientation is called for in learning and teaching in the middle and upper school, preparation is required at the early stages" and suggests that, in 1986, learning in S1S2 "represented a step backwards from the point which many pupils had already reached in primary 7".

The last word should go to Achieving Success. Its conclusion that S1S2 "is not being used effectively to build on pupils' achievements in their primary education" should sound warning bells in the system as it did 11 years ago. And if the danger is still the same, might it not suggest that the status quo of the abrupt transition to a subject-centred curriculum from P7 to S1 won't be fixed by tinkering at the edges of subject rotation?

What is needed now is evidence from sources other than inspection. Given the research on intelligence and learning, much of which is referred to in the curriculum council's Teaching for Effective Learning, we could move towards a new paradigm of learning and teaching. Learning itself as an activity could become the focus and the curricular area or subject seen as the vehicle for promoting it effectively. There are still too many sacred cows in the secondary curriculum which are contributing to fragmentation. Taking on the vested interests of subjects won't be easy, but if there is a genuine debate, based on research and evaluation by teachers and others, more radical change may well be possible at the upper primary and in early secondary stages.

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block remains a climate which sees opposition to official pronouncements as some kind of disloyalty. Accommodation of dissenting voices is surely a sign of the health of a democracy. If we can all show ourselves to be capable of responding constructively to differences of opinion, Scottish education will be the better for it.

Dr Brian Boyd is associate director of Quality in Education at Strathclyde University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you