A short history of the Highers

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Higher exam faces major new challenges

Today, thousands of pupils are sitting the first Higher exam of 2009. For 120 years, it has remained what politicians call the `gold standard', adapting to changes in the curriculum. Now, as it faces major new challenges, Douglas Blane talks to the man who wrote its story

Teachers say that the only constant in Scottish education, for at least 50 years, has been the pace of change. It is not quite true. For more than twice that length of time there has been one fixed point in the learning landscape - the Highers.

These have certainly altered since first being set in the summer of 1888. Ten times as many subjects are offered nowadays for a start - 70 at the last count, compared to just seven on those first five days in June. But the principles and purposes of Scotland's most respected exam are largely untouched by the passage of time.

These were to provide "a leaving certificate that would set standards, provide incentives and reduce the proliferation of preliminary examinations," according to Henry Philip in The Higher Tradition - nominally a history of the Highers but actually a detailed, wonderfully readable account of 100 years of Scottish school education.

A second volume by the author, released online this year, brings the story up to date, draws lessons from history and looks to the future.

Clear lessons emerge from all the research, says the retired classics teacher, headteacher and HM inspector - who was given access to a wealth of material that had lain hidden in the files of organisations which, until recently, ran Scottish education from the top down and behind closed doors.

"The most important lesson is that perfection is unattainable," he says. "If you wish new ideas to work in education, keep them practicable. Keep them simple."

Time and again over the past 120 years, valuable innovations have been spoiled by "experts looking to improve on the basic idea by making it more impressive", says Mr Philip. He cites the first attempt at pupil profiles, the early days of Standard grade and the Scottish Qualifications Authority's data-handling debacle in the year 2000.

The second vital lesson gleaned from the history of the Highers is that major change takes time. Higher Still was rushed through for political reasons, says Mr Philip, and so failed to involve the teaching profession sufficiently. That lesson has been partly learned in planning the new curriculum.

"Curriculum for Excellence is one of the biggest changes in Scottish education since Highers began. With that kind of major change, you have to take the profession with you. They have tried to do that, but they are now in serious danger, I believe, of spoiling it all by rushing the whole thing through. Yes they have put it back a year - but what's a year? This is a real revolution."

The major problem, Mr Philip believes, is that teachers have yet to see the kind of questions and activities that can assess the new style of learning. "Let's say teachers went ahead and started teaching the new curriculum, then youngsters had to face the exams that are there now. It would be a disaster.

"The type of question set at Higher has changed greatly over the years. In the beginning, and for a long time afterwards, the emphasis was on rote- learning. When I sat Higher mathematics in 1945, I could have passed just by memorising Euclid. You couldn't do that now - in any subject. You have to demonstrate understanding and the ability to think."

The Highers must move on again if A Curriculum for Excellence is to work, Mr Philip believes. "We need to go a stage further, a more difficult stage. It's a huge challenge. The people writing Curriculum for Excellence should have been asked what sort of papers they could produce to test what they were recommending. The teachers should have specimen papers by now, even just as a starting point for discussion, an Aunt Sally if you like.

"The lesson of history is that - whatever the idealists say - the content and approach of the examinations affect what happens in the classroom. The planners may know the end product at which they're aiming, but no clear picture has reached the teachers."

While sharing the profession's uncertainty about where Highers are going, Mr Philip is in no doubt about where they've come from and where they are now. He gives short shrift to paid detractors in the press who constantly carp about falling standards.

"I'd like to see some of them sitting today's exams. They would be in for a shock. Teachers can't win with these people. If exam results improve, it's because of falling standards. If they deteriorate, it's because of bad teaching. If you study Higher papers over the years, you see that they are a much better test of pupils' understanding and learning today than they were in the past."

Although sympathetic to selective education as a young man ("inevitable, I suppose, in view of my own education, training and teaching experience"), Mr Philip became a strong supporter of comprehensive education after joining the inspectorate in 1962. This enabled him to see "the raw deal so many pupils were given, through being written off as useless, because they could not keep up with the hectic pace set from the start of S1".

Comprehensive education and the introduction of O-grade "exploded long- established theories about the educational potential of children. Suddenly it became clear that there were far more able pupils than was previously thought".

The move to end "the division of pupils into sheep and goats", that had always existed in Scottish education, began with comprehensive education. But the ultimate aim of "assessing everyone in the hope of providing opportunity for everyone," as Edinburgh University's Lindsay Paterson writes in his preface to Mr Philip's second volume, continues today. The focus now is on the nature of the assessments and the differing demands of academic and vocational qualifications.

The historical perspective leads Mr Philip to believe that combining the two bodies that provided these different types of qualifications into one - the Scottish Qualifications Authority - was a well-meaning mistake.

"Certainly more must be done to raise the status of non-academic courses," he wrote at the time. "But it is people's attitudes towards vocational education which need to be changed, rather than the bodies which provide for the different forms of certification."

Replace bodies by structures, he says, and that remains his view today. It is misguided to try to "force all courses into the same assessment mould". A serious concern is that the mass of data SQA has to handle is leading to "rigid adherence to rules of presentation" - which will lead in turn to losing "the human touch which has always been a major strength of Scottish national examinations".

Finding that human touch almost everywhere he looked was the biggest surprise to Henry Philip, he says, in researching the history of the Highers. "Over the years, there has usually been a sociological purpose behind the changes they made to the examinations. The memos they exchanged - and the marginal notes they scribbled on them - show the interest they took in the pupils as individuals.

"I found that right from the start. Few knew about it because there was a great deal of secrecy in Scottish education. There was a John Struthers in the early days, for instance, who seemed a very hard-nosed individual. But when you read his memos you can see the humanity forcing its way through the civil servant's stiff upper lip.

"The strength of Scottish education has always been that it's a homely thing. That's why I say in the book that the history of the Highers is much more than a collection of factual information. It is ultimately - as everything in education should be - about people."


The Higher Tradition, Henry L Philip, Scottish Examination Board, 1992 The Higher Tradition, Volume 2, 2009

Scotch Education Department: "means simply a room in Whitehall with the word `Scotland' painted on the door." Duke of Richmond, 1872

Why the district inspector for Kincardine was also responsible for Shetland: "According to legend when the civil servants in London were organising Scotland into Inspector districts, they got out an atlas; but they failed to notice that although Shetland appeared to the right of Aberdeen on the map it was in an inset."

Effects of war (May 1916 memo to Struther): "The Edinburgh schools . were abnormally disturbed and excited on the day the (Latin) paper was written owing to the air raid on the previous night . The effects are plain in the results of the papers and cases like these an only be dealt with specially. They have all been referred to the Inspector for recommendations."

Effects of food shortages: ". authorities were empowered to release children over 13 to help with potato-lifting, berry-picking and the grain harvest. The disruption caused by this was acknowledged in the examination arrangements from 1947 to 1953 which accepted as Adverse Circumstances `any interruption of studies due to participation in harvest work'."

The 1960s: "Parents began to be much more ambitious for their offspring, demanding equality of opportunity for all children. Many pupils who would previously have been written off as failures began to obtain good qualifications, and the belief that only a limited number of pupils had the innate ability to benefit from a full secondary course and some form of higher education was well and truly exploded as a myth."

Highers and others: "Examinations should be the servant of education not a mechanistic juggernaut that casts its shadow over everything."

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