The blind politics of success

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
David Eastwood gives a brief history of Zen and the art of curriculum maintenance

What are we to make of Achieving Success in S1S2, written in response to a directive from the previous Secretary of State for Scotland? Is it merely a damp squib left over from a recent electoral bonfire or does it offer real insights into the structure and function of early secondary education? In the foreword to Achievement for All (1996), we were disarmingly told that it is based on Inspectorate "evidence", since there "has been no specifically Scottish research undertaken recently which examines the effects of class organisation on learning and teaching". In passing, one wonders who has controlled Scottish educational research for the past 10 years to allow such a state of affairs to exist.

This new report, it is claimed, draws additionally on "a range of research findings". Since research findings are mentioned explicitly in just three paragraphs (1.6, 1.7 and 3.16) and then only to quantify teacher opinions or progress towards Government targets, we are again left with "accumulated inspection evidence" - how some HM inspectors have read the situation in schools across the country. In his Lectures, Coleridge lists various kinds of reader, describing one group as "sponges, who absorb all they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied". Following Coleridge, we can see this report as the sponge bag of Inspectorate travels.

Those of us who were working in schools 20 years ago remember that issues such as progression, the variety of learning experiences and, specifically, the question of primary-secondary transfer were matters of active debate and research. In Constructive Education for Adolescents (1977), Professor W. D. Wall commented: "The failing adolescent comes to his secondary school with an impoverished self-image and an ego structure undermined by failure, to find himself confronted with three to five years more of circumstances in which he believes himself bound to fail and bound therefore to be rejected. He comes to perceive that his low status in the school also means almost certainly the likelihood of a low status career. It is not surprising that he opts out of useless attempts at learning."

Such rejection strengthens the need for, and dependence, upon some other group - usually those in the same boat. As Wall notes: "This encourages the development of sub-groups which socialise their members into increasingly well organised roles of hostility to school, to more successful pupils and to society itself."

What is to be done? Again, Wall expressed a clear view: "Radical prevention lies largely outside the power of the secondary school. Much of the problem arises . . . in the very earliest education of the very young child. There is, however, little doubt that more could and should be done at the primary stage to detect and remedy failure early - especially failure in educational skills like reading, which will be of immense importance later."

Apart from the references to "direct teaching" (a litmus term that changes its meaning when dipped into different political colours), all the so-called key principles for class organisation and effective learning listed in this report are better analysed by Wall some 20 years ago. There is however an important difference. In Wall's book the overall function of education as enabling the realisation of self is clearly presented, but in Achieving Success in S1S2 the only important thing apparently is improving test scores.

In supporting Wall's call for early intervention, I am certainly not suggesting that secondary schools do not have to change. They do, and probably very significantly - but in order to promote a better society, and using techniques that look forward to employing modern data technologies. The enormous potential of expert system management for learning and assessment does not even get a mention in this report. Nearer to home, but also 20 years ago, the research of Professor John Nisbet in Aberdeen alerted us to the discontinuity of experience for a youngster moving from a single-teacher primary 7 class to 15 or more different teachers in S1. At that time perhaps most attention was given to the arbitrarily different demands in various subjects (for example, in the presentation of written work), to the way in which different subjects did not relate to each other and to the hidden messages of structure (in which teachers "owned" rooms and pupils wandered the school).

Section 1.9 of the report goes some way to specifying similar concerns. Well, better late than never, if positive action is proposed. But we only have to read on to the next section to discover that we must stay "within the grain of current policy" - official speak for "no new money, no real change".

So in this context how are we to address, say, fragmentation in S1 and S2? It is telling that alternative curriculum structuring is dismissed by consideration only in terms of a prior acceptance of subjects - hence "integration" and "co-ordination". The new big ideas are "blocking" and "broad band setting to form classes". This is like travelling to the East for enlightenment to be told something that could just as well have come out of a Christmas cracker.

Blocking is problematic for all subjects, simply because pupils forget what they have been expected to learn by the time the next block comes round. There is nothing unusual about this. Recall of unused information declines exponentially with time, something that might make us ask what "enduring and worthwhile outcomes" (2.10) the report envisages for subjects not studied beyond S2. Blocking might reduce the number of staff encountered by pupils from 15 to 10. Why is this assumed to be so obviously desirable? No more time per subject overall seems to be proposed and, in itself, blocking does not address the fragmentation of knowledge nor the possibility of different demands.

Even allowing for the fact that this report was produced with more than a backwards glance at the prejudices of a particular politician, it remains both disappointing and alarming. Disappointing, because it gives no real rationale for its proposals in S1 and S2; what is true in this report is not new, and what is new is not true. Slick presentation is no substitute for interesting ideas. Alarming, because its assertive style contrasts even with the tone of the 1986 report, Learning and Teaching in the First Two Years of the Scottish Secondary School, which was at least prepared to acknowledge developments undertaken by education authorities. Curious, also, that in spite of individual initiatives promoted by local authorities (sometimes "against the grain"), there is not a single named reference to them in this report. It is as if the new Scottish parliament is being invited to consider a single source of expertise and understanding in the matter of running schools.

David Eastwood is assistant director of education with Aberdeen City Council. He writes in a personal capacity.

* For readers with longer memories, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first published 20 years ago. Its author, Robert Pirsig, admitted it had little to do with orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It wasn't very factual on motorcycle maintenance, either.

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