A shoehorn won't work

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Cramming three subjects intoone is not the way to achieve success in the early secondary years, says Jim Leslie

CALUM STEWART'S article (TESS, September 18) on the social subjects cannot pass without comment. He makes many positive points about "integration" but oversimplifies a complex issue. He does not define integration. He does mention subject blocking but apparently elsewhere assumes a merging of the three social subjects; or can he mean that one teacher delivers three subjects? We are left wondering.

Actually, whether or not to integrate the social subjects is not the real issue, but let us deal with that first.

Assume that Mr Stewart is advocating the combining of geography, history and modern studies into one new subject called social subjects. There seem to me to be no clear advantages in merging disciplines so distinct from each other in concept and methodology. Although superficially they appear similar - they all indulge in "evaluating" - the actual process is diverse and merging them will lose educationally valuable perspectives.

Which topics are better viewed from a merged social subjects perspective, rather than a shared one? The article does not enlighten us.

There are advantages in some form of integration but those detailed in the article can be achieved merely through subject blocking. There are many genuine drawbacks, although Mr Stewart merely alludes to those linked to cynical teacher self-interest.

The merging of subject outcomes unless done with skill and commitment by all participants can seriously blur the focus of learning and disrupt progression, to the detriment of articulation with S3-S4 identified by the Government paper, Achieving Success in S1-S2, as an important issue. But why stop at social subjects? Why not include English in the integration? (It has been done. ) The argument is the same.

But we are missing the point. Achieving Success in S1-S2 is a profound document, which as it happens rejects the notion of integration. It is vitally important to take on board its underlying ideas and avoid merely reacting to it in a mechanistic way. The report observes that pupils in S1-S2 suffer from a lack of continuous monitoring. They often fail to be appropriately challenged due a reluctance in the secondary school to recognise prior learning and an unwillingness by teachers to advance pupil learning into areas "reserved" for Standard grade. Teachers whose own children have gone through the system acknowledge this, even in the best secondary schools.

How do we tackle this? Mechanical organisational measures are not enough in themselves. Reducing subject numbers will do very little on its own and will be counter-productive if it disrupts a department's carefully thought out learning programme.

Instead we need to get behind the superficial, and empower schools to make provision based on the needs of pupils and the resources and skills that exist in the school. The question is therefore not "How do we reduce the number of subjects in the week?", but "How do we more effectively monitor pupils progress? How do we ensure greater cohesion across the curriculum?" This may involve reducing subjects but it will also involve a range of other actions such as improving first-line guidance, sharpening up whole-school policies such as writing and standard of presentation, and co-ordinating the teaching of key skills.

Integration of the social subjects has all the hallmarks of the sticking plaster remedy except that I do not think it is being applied over the wound. The patient will continue to bleed. It is really important to avoid been dragged into tabloid debate over superficial issues which will merely sustain short-sighted or unsympathetic senior management teams.

History, geography and modern studies each occupies a unique and important place in the education of young people. They allow the development of a range of overlapping but distinctive skills and are essential contexts for fostering awareness of our environment, our culture and heritage, and our changing society.

They can be delivered together but only if that is a strategy chosen for educational rather than expedient reasons. Let us keep the debate at its proper professional level and avoid the quick-fix approach.

Jim Leslie is an adviser with Highland Council.

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