The case for a more Scottish Higher English

19th December 2008 at 00:00

Teachers of my vintage may have taught three or even four versions of Higher English, and most would agree that the present one is by far the least satisfactory. Higher Still has been a monster, a mishmash from the start. Perhaps a decade ago we were far too compliant in allowing those in charge, who had at best a tenuous grasp of classroom realities, to impose a unitary structure and NABs on a reluctant profession, although some English teachers at least tried to warn us.

Although I have long argued that we should retain Standard grade, or at least its best features, I also think the best way of ensuring greater coherence, and overcoming the problem of the dash for Higher, would be to construct a two-year course with a common structure, but assessed slightly differently at each stage to ensure inclusion. It would have an exit point at the end of S4, while allowing others to continue on the same pathway towards Higher.

However, faced with dire economic forecasts, one very large objection to altering the external exam structure will simply be the matter of money. As well as the cost of introducing major changes, most schools simply cannot afford to replace texts and teaching materials, especially the huge bank of Higher Still support material, all designed for the present exam.

Yet there is a growing consensus that the present arrangements are simply untenable, with everything depending on a final exam and no credit given to course work. The problem is particularly acute at Intermediate levels, where the experience of far too many pupils is now one of failure and underachievement. This is mainly due to the exam being entirely devoted to the skills that pupils usually find most difficult, and no credit whatsoever being given to writing, which is absurd.

However, I am sure the vast majority of English teachers would strongly oppose including writing in the present external exam, simply because there would not be adequate time for students to complete a substantial piece of writing that is truly representative of their potential without devaluing other core elements, especially the range of literary texts studied.

While I am sure that few would object to a small reduction in the marks for Paper I (as many students struggle to finish the present Interpretation in the time available), reducing this further to make way for writing would be simply absurd. However, there is a strong case for expanding the language study aspect of this paper.

Another demand, often made by employers, is for a compulsory report-writing task, something most teachers were greatly relieved to see dropped. I believe we should resist this argument, as students could still opt for a discursive or report-writing task as well as having to write two critical essays in the exam, thus covering key report-writing skills and others besides.

Finally, the time has come to address a wider cultural issue, which should be regarded as a national embarrassment: that it is permissible for Scottish students to learn nothing of the literature of the country in which they live. Since the case has been accepted for the mandatory study of Scottish history, we must now demand that at least one of the two literature essays should be on a Scottish text.

Whatever the current review of Higher English comes up with, one thing is certain: the Scottish Qualifications Authority must engage the profession in proper dialogue over the proposed changes and involve us in genuine consultation, or we will end up with another botched job.

John Hodgart is principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy.

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