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'Pupils need time to develop'

With the Scottish Executive's push for more flexibility in the curriculum, the value of early starts on qualification programmes and fast-tracking to exams is being debated widely across the country.

At Garnock Academy, acceptance is not total. John Hodgart, the principal teacher of English, is one member of staff who is opposed to starting on the Standard grade or National Qualifications courses in the January of S2.

English and maths are not involved in the school's early start programme.

Pupils begin their new course work in these subjects in the June of S2. As compulsory core subjects which do not involve pupil choice, they can up the pace of learning at any time, says headteacher Brian McNaught, whereas with a subject like physics, a pupil can only get started after they have opted in.

Mr Hodgart understands his colleagues' enthusiasm for an early start, as everyone is under pressure to raise attainment, but he does not share it.

"I think we really need to widen our focus on the bigger picture and ask some very searching questions about what the S1-S2 common course should be about and whether starting exam courses early is really in the best interests of the majority of children in the longer term.

"I believe we should be concerned about what is happening in an increasing number of secondary schools for several reasons.

"Firstly, I fear that many children are being forced into making subject choices far too early, before they have had adequate exposure to a wide range of subjects in S1-S2, in some cases no experience of some subjects at all, which are not exactly ideal conditions for making informed choices.

"For example, can the majority really appreciate the difference between the science subjects by early in S2? Or, should it be acceptable for Scottish children to learn no more about the history of their own country after perhaps only doing a short unit in S1?

"Secondly, while it might suit some children to start subjects they prefer earlier, it could also lead to more pupils than before ending up in some subjects they can't really cope with for much longer than previously.

"Thirdly, this often means more children landing in bottom or poorer sections at an earlier stage, which I think could create an even more alienated sub-culture within our schools and intensify discipline problems.

"However, my concerns run even deeper than this. I believe that the common course should still be about exposing children to as wide a curriculum as possible, from computing to Classics, and allowing children time to consolidate and develop the skills of learning before being subjected to the pressure of the exam process.

"I think we have a duty to children to resist the corrosive influence of exam league tables and the sterile study of exam statistics which has created a system where the only thing that really matters is the number of exam passes.

"I think we should also be very suspicious of pressure from the inspectorate and politicians over a number of years telling us that children are underachieving in the early years of secondary, when the evidence is debatable to say the least. Perhaps the impact of teenage hormones should be considered more carefully.

"As a result of this pressure from above, many schools have reintroduced setting or even streaming, when there is plenty of well-researched evidence that this does little or nothing to raise attainment whatsoever.

"In my opinion a more effective strategy for raising attainment would be to reduce class size significantly in S1-S2 and develop programmes which focus on literacy and learning skills across the curriculum, thereby trying to give as many children as great a sense of educational achievement and confidence as possible. I think this would do much more than early starts or setting to promote real educational success and a love of learning for its own sake, as well as raising attainment among the majority of our pupils.

"In my own subject, maturity is very important in understanding literature and language. Pupils need time to develop, to consolidate and to read for its own sake, and for their own sake, before starting them on the exam route.

"Breadth of curriculum and giving pupils a sense of success without an exam pass is important. We're forcing young people too early and are in danger of losing focus on what education is about. We're giving too much emphasis to exam attainment at the expense of a rounded education."

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