And so hatred of caravans is born

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Ostensibly, all interested parties are fully consulted on any curricular change and refinements and modifications follow. In reality, however, things are a bit different: several factors get in the way of "real consultation".

Firstly, timescale. The latest batch of documents for Higher Still arrived in schools on May 21 with responses invited by the end of October. Real time for consultation shrinks to two and a half months - and yet in June, August and September schools cannot exclusively concentrate on Higher Still proposals.

Secondly, documents. When I phoned the Higher Still Development Unit on receipt of the most recent materials (twin sets - the pearls come later!) to see whether extra copies were available I was told: "Senior officials at the Scottish Office have decreed no more than two sets per department. But they are free to copy." But they are not free to copy, as duplication of enough copies for real consultation would cost Pounds 30-Pounds 50 depending on the size of the department. Far be it from me to suggest that it is a deliberate impediment to consultation, but even the most committed enthusiast for Higher Still must concede that it makes proper consultation much more difficult in times of cuts and shrinking resources.

Meetings are promised locally to consider proposals, but when or where no one seems to know, and no doubt colleagues will have to cover classes for participants.

A third problem concerns the composition of the groups driving forward this "greatest consultation exercise of all time". Admittedly, some of the great and the good have fallen overboard already, but a study of the lists of the strategic planning group, and the curriculum and assessment group and the staff development group and the information and publicity group reveals a dearth of practising teachers. A handful of classroom teachers are named among the 80 or so "movers and shakers". Few of them will have responsibility for implementing proposals, but all have power to suggest changes. There's no one more Stakhanovite than a teacher wanting out of the classroom - unless of course it's a teacher already out of the classroom.

All the CD-Roms, turquoise-plastic carrying cases for implementation packs and yards of subject folders cannot make up for the fact that if proposals become detached from reality, if presentation overwhelms content, then change is doomed to failure. All the HSD unit needs to complete the package is a motto - preferably in Latin for sonorous effect. Per ardua ad disastra, perhaps. Take the response made by the English panel to the December 1995 consultation. The TES Scotland stated on May 31: "Teachers had major reservations about workload and questioned the feasibility of teaching oral skills to higher levels. "

Rather than attempt to suggest ways to meet these anxieties the English panel restate the importance of oral proficiency to employers and to society at large. No one would dispute that, but the implications of assessing talk at an extra year group level, the implications of how this would askew the time available for the rest of the curriculum, these are the questions the panel should address, but doesn't. It is almost as if teachers are being asked if they would prefer to be poisoned or strangled - rather than whether they want to die at all!

My vested interest is that I have taught English for 25 years. I have seen wave after wave of changes in that time, some desirable, some necessary, some less so, but I can clearly remember Douglas Osler, now head of the inspectorate at the time of the introduction of Standard grade telling a meeting: "Let's get the caravan on the road and we'll paint it as it goes along." I've had an antipathy towards caravans ever since.

The consultation process is further diluted by the HSD Unit helpfully asking questions that wants answers to, which sometimes obscure or ignore larger more fundamental (or more awkward questions). The latest assessment document does not invite comment at all.

It is said that a shotgun marriage between an educational body trying to be business-like with a business pretending to be an educational body has spawned such a spurious process of "consultation". Perhaps people beavering away at Higher Still on a more exclusive basis than teachers may believe implicitly in the consultation process. To others it's much thinner than it looks and accentuates the unfortunate gap between leaders and led.

I cannot get out of my head HG Wells's The Time Machine with the two groups - the Eloi, those rather languid, beautiful people who strolled the surface of the planet, and the Morlocks who laboured underground beneath such a scene of fragile beauty. At least the Morlocks had the prospect of a nocturnal visit up the ventilation shafts to nobble the odd Eloi. Teachers don't even have that compensation!

Peter MacLaren is an English teacher in Glasgow.

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