Another shot in the dark

21st March 2003 at 00:00
In the unreal world of HMI, targets are plucked out of thin air and tests devised to ensure they have been met, says Eddie Poyner

CCORDING to the findings of the Assessment of Achievement Programme, pupils do OK up to P5 and then OK in S3 and S4. By some amazing quirk, according to the HMI report on languages, the same teachers and the same institutions fail youngsters from ages nine to 14, and then, after recovering for two years, re-enact their revenge by failing them again in S5 and S6.

I don't know what is worse: the crass stupidity of HMI, the AAP and Professor Douglas Weir et al, or the naive gullibility of the media and the Scottish Executive for believing these completely irrational, unscientific findings. When the drafts for 5-14 first came out, we read that "most" pupils will reach level E by S2. A huge debate raged about what "most" means. HMI plucked out a figure based on nothing but divine inspiration, which then created a target that had to be met. How does anyone know that 85 per cent of S2 youngsters should reach level E?

Despite the unscientific nature of this assumption, it has been leapt on eagerly to allow false claims about standards to be made. Tests were then created to ensure levels were met consistently, but we also learn that these are now being completely revamped for August.

Such is the pressure on teachers to reach targets that youngsters are sent to the next level with a pass, even when the standard of work is poor. We have, for example, youngsters with a D in writing who do not use paragraphs or sentences unless constantly reminded to do so, which, of course they would be before a big test. In P7 there is kudos attached to sending pupils armed with a level E to secondary school. Any examination of how much youngsters have to do at that level, however, would indicate an E is highly unlikely.

What we had before 5-14 was a folio of best work containing a wide variety of pieces showing over some time and over various genres what pupils were capable of. This should be a time to cover the writing skills as thoroughly and regularly as possible; leave formal assessment until later.

Is it not also logical to see that the reason why pupils can match the random targets until P4 is because here writing is basic and teacher-led? When they progress to having to develop their own ideas and master the complexities of punctuation, syntax, spelling and vocabulary they are bound to find it much tougher. Even at Higher level (and beyond) many students have serious problems with writing, not because they have not been taught, but because they find it hard to learn for a variety of reasons, the principal one being laziness.

The total lack of logic is also clear in Professor Weir's assertion (TESS, March 7) that a reason for youngsters doing poorly in secondary is that they no longer benefit from "learner-centred and active approaches" as used in primary.

Wake up. These are the approaches they use in P5 to P7 which HMI says are not working. Professor Weir also says, in the sweeping generalisations of such remote people, that methods are "uninspiring". His big new idea is 10-14 specialists to "transform the experiences of pupils". More expensive change and confusion based on nothing more than intuition.

It is not only 5-14 that is a weak link. Groups like HMI and its various development units are responsible for the shambles of Scottish education with its three stages - 5-14, Standard grade and Higher Still - entirely lacking articulation. As Graham Donaldson, chief HMI, admitted in his glaringly obvious remarks, teachers must "anticipate some of the more demanding language challenges in fifth year". (To do this I would love to put Standard grade, with its interminable re-re-redrafting, in the bin, and use Intermediate 1 and 2 in its place.) The evidence that youngsters do not translate Credit passes to Higher says more about the leniency of Standard grade markers. It was HMI that caused the problem by failing to sort the whole S3 to S6 curriculum, dealing instead only with the upper school. Students "do not read widely" and an answer is given: "students should establish good reading habits". Thank you. That'll get 'em reading. When I tell you that only two of the 30 students in a "top" class received books or tokens for Christmas, it gives an insight into home motivation to read.

ruancy, misbehaviour, students more interested in their jobs at Tesco, parents more interested in backing their children's so-called rights while encouraging their irresponsibility, students knowing that an FE or HE place will be found somewhere irrespective of results, and, worst of all, students expecting that it is the teacher's job to get them through their course are all major problems for teachers, not securing a marginal improvement in 5-14 literacy just to keep our political masters off our backs.

Most of the teachers I know are "bursting blood vessels" (in inspiring ways) to effect improvement. And if they are not, then what does HMI suggest? If teachers lack inspiration, where do they get it from? Is training available? Will a measure of "inspiration effect" be produced, maybe by quantifying the twinkle in pupils' eyes, or the number of hands up waved frenziedly, or the excitement of their chat as they leave the classroom, or the spontaneous thanks for a super lesson?

Finally, when you think of how much money and time has been spent to produce such failed initiatives, one can't help but question the point of it all. Is it just nostalgia that mopes for the old Higher with its fine reading assessments, its formal report writing, its literature content, its summarising skills, and the O grades that few Credit pupils could handle nowadays?

Eddie Poyner is principal English teacher at Carluke High.

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