A fast track that adds up

20th October 2000 at 01:00
S2 pupils are so keen on an initiative which allows early progress to Standard grade maths that they are calling for it in other subjects, says Eleanor Caldwell

The new fast track system adopted by the mathematics department at Firrhill High school, Edinburgh, is setting the pace for pupils to begin Standard grade courses in their second year.

"I'm really enjoying maths this year," says Paul Holmes, an S2 pupil, "because I'm on to the same work as my brother and he's in third year."

More than 50 pupils in two S2 classes are now well under way with Standard grade work and can look forward to completing their course at the end of the third year, almost a year early. However, the objective is still for pupils to sit the exam at the end of fourth year, as normal.

Principal maths teacher Mark McKelvie explains: "We hope the system will kill two birds with one stone. We'll have much less repetition at the lower end and free up valuable extra time at the upper end of the school."

During the first half of the fourth year, pupils will complete study of Higher Still unit one. Mr McKelvie says that time constraints in the fifth year meant that pupils often found the early stages of the Higher course very difficult. He anticipates that by working through the first 10-week unit in S4, they will benefit from having a more thorough explanation of some of the more difficult Higher concepts, such as calculus, before going into S5.

"This will give us time to go into everything in much greater depth and not just give the bare bones," he says.

By developing earlier understanding and confidence, he hopes to create a better quality learning experience for his pupils.

There will also be more time in S5 to study statistics. While this is briefly touched on at Standard grade, Mr McKelvie explains that there is rarely time to study it as a separate unit in the Higher course.

"Statistics is constantly becoming a more important subject in different areas of work," he says and he welcomes the chance to teach it in more detail in S5.

While pupils will move on to Higher level work for the first part of S4, they will return to revision of Standard grade for the latter part of the year, in preparation for the summer exam, he says. "They will hopefully have greater confidence by that stage and will regard Standard grade as much easier than they anticipated."

One of the key aims of fast tracking, he explains, is to encourage continued study for Advanced Higher in S6, giving pupils a deeper understanding of the skills and concepts required in university courses.

Thesystem is not geared solely for the top ability range. Those working at lower levels in Standard grade will move on to Intermediate 1 work during the first part of S4. It is hoped that pupils who would previously have opted to give up maths after the summer exam, may continue study towards Intermediate 1 and 2 and possibly Higher in S5.

Depute headteacher John Brown says that with Firrhill's recently increased S5 continuation rate of 88 per cent, the school is keen to make maths an attractive study option.

The fast track system is founded on a new S1 course which, Mr McKelvie explains, is considerably "tightened up and condensed". It aims to avoid the current tendency to repeat some primary level work. Instead, particular areas of maths, such as algebra, can be worked on in more detail. He hopes that this will create a more interesting and enjoyable experience from the outset of secondary work.

Commenting on their first term's Standard grade work, a group of S2 pupils agreed about its effectiveness. "We get to know a topic before we start doing it. We get notes with rules and examples which really us help to understand the work," says one boy. Showing off his jotter, he points out notes on Pythagoras's space diagonals. "We didn't think we would do this, let alone understand it, in second year," he adds.

All agree that they find the work more progressive. "It's not just lots of bits and pieces," says one girl.

One of the boys says that, for him, fast tracking is ideal because the class works from different books. He had already completed the S1 maths book in Primary 7, he says.

The pupils are keen to emphasise that they would also like to move faster through other subjects. Religious and moral education and geography, they feel, would lend themselves well to the system. "Some topics, like life after death, seem to go on for an awful long time," says one girl.

Headteacher Pat Cairns is very enthusiastic about introducing fast tracking for other subjects. After a long period of consultation there is, she says, a lot of enthusiasm for it in departments such as science and modern languages. Teachers in practical subjects such as craft, design and technology and home economics, she adds, are also interested.

The S2 pupils are, however, less enthusiastic about this. They say that primary school has not prepared them as well in these subjects and so they are glad to take a slower approach in S1.

"You have to learn to bake a cake before you make a souffle," says one girl. "In maths you've already learned the basics and just want to get ahead."

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