Alive in a perfect sixth

13th April 2001 at 01:00
The Certificate of Sixth Year Studies brought in an era where intensive study was a heady mix of Heraclitus and Bob Dylan, says Bridget Loney

Leaving aside the rose-coloured spectacles (and the existence of some rather good years before and since), some of us would still call 1968 a very good year. They were taking to the barricades in Paris, but if you were in sixth year in Scotland life nearer home was interesting enough to claim most of our attention.

It was the first year of the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, designed to give more direction and focus to the Scottish sixth year, and to encourage skills of independent study. The new exam was something of a paradox - a high level exam (higher than Higher) which was not high-stakes, since it was not a requirement for entrance to tertiary education.

Sixth year at that time could be pure euphoria. You had been accepted to start at university and you were assured of a student grant that would pay at least your tuition fees as you studied for your degree.

Not all subjects were available for CSYS that year. Some of us did English and French. Latin was not yet offered, and it was to be some time before Greek was available. As a pupil that year, I could not guess that it would be my great pleasure, not so many years later, to help a classics panel to prepare the arrangements of CSYS Greek.

My memory is of an air of subdued excitement at the introduction of CSYS.

In keeping with the general atmosphere of the sixties, there was the belief that progress was being made. We really could exclaim, with Wordsworthian enthusiasm:"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive But to be young was very heaven". Another quotation ringing in our traditionally taught ears (with echoes of Aquinas) was from Tennyson:"The old order changeth, yielding place to new."

There was also Heraclitus - and Bob Dylan . . . Changes, including the introduction of new types of assessment, were welcomed with interest. This, you must remember, was a decade of optimism, before the swinging sixties twisted into the striking seventies and the sounds of yesterday began to fade into troubled water. Pop music and literature were both part of our lives: Strawberry Fields and the Salley Gardens; Gerry and the Pacemakers as well as Donneand the Metaphysicals; not only Procol Harum but also arma virumque.

For those with the gold prefectorial braid edging our blazers it was a time of new reading and new ideas. After an intense fifth year in the company of Aeneas, Odysseus and Hamlet, the reading (whether for CSYS or not) now included: Flaubert, Gautier, Camus (although life did not yet seem particularly absurd); Hopkins, King Lear, The Waste Land; Iliad VI, Alcestis, Plato's Apology; Juvenal, the fourth Georgic, Horace's Odes.

For the black-gowned teachers it must have been a pleasant era too. In senior secondary schools, there was still the luxury of selection, streaming, setting. Education was still mostly academic in emphasis, and still regarded as a privilege, demanding a great deal of hard work.

Our teachers clearly agreed with the Socratic ideal that the unexamined life was not worth living. The terms "internal assessment" and "continuous assessment" were not yet used, but school assessment was continual - daily verb lists, weekly proses, regular unseens, endless class tests, the prelims (or schedules), the tut-tutting over half-marks "thrown away" and the eternal mystery of why no one was ever awarded more than 90 per cent in English.

After homework you read Jane Austen, the Brontes, any other novels that the local libraries could provide and Yeats. (You would not use these for answers in an exam.) You had a go at translating a Latin lyric into the form of a modern ballad. Then there was debating, the school magazine, singing in the senior choir. You were permanently exhausted, but not at all unhappy.

At the end of the session, after the completion of a long essay called a "dissertation" (a word we had previously associated with Lamb and roast pig), the exam papers for CSYS were really quite enjoyable: translating French, writing an essay on La Peste, dealing with practical criticism and creative writing. (The Muse was well prepared to appear obediently when summoned.) Now CSYS is changing into Advanced Higher. Along with many other subjects, English (and communication), French, Latin and (Classical) Greek are still there. Plus ca change . . .

Bridget Loney, a qualifications manager with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, writes in a personal capacity.

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