Cast adrift in the deep seas of academe

4th August 2006 at 01:00
As a teacher of senior pupils, I felt uncomfortable when I read the recent figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (TESS, July 21).

Our universities have some of the highest drop-out rates in the UK. Almost 11.5 per cent of Scottish university students left their establishment in 2004-05 after their first year. Some institutions have drop-out rates of more than 20 per cent. This is shocking. What's the problem?

One factor is that the Scottish education system is not geared up to producing school pupils with the potential to be successful students. All the key players contribute to this debacle - the Scottish Executive, Her Majesty's Inspectorate, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority - by developing policies which are then parachuted into schools without sufficient consultation. Some of these ideas may be good in themselves, but they are not connected meaningfully or logically enough to the demands of higher education.

Bear with me as I give an example. The SQA Higher philosophy course has recently been altered to take account of too much content. The way the course is assessed has also changed because it was deemed unfair that big essay questions disadvantaged candidates who did not possess strong essay writing skills. Theoretically, I have no problem with making a subject accessible to a wider range of candidates. Yet what happens to the pupils who go on to university to study philosophy and are expected to write three essays in a two-hour exam?

Most university entrants have 12 to 13 years of prior education. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that they have reached an accomplished standard of literacy and autonomy with regard to studying. It's not happening. Literacy, the key to accessing the world of learning, is crumbling. It's possible to pass Higher English with an impoverished vocabulary and an inability to read and summarise a piece of extended writing. Let's not kid ourselves otherwise. Some pupils just shouldn't be going to university and we wonder why, splat, they can't cope. In the drive to push up the statistics league, we mustn't forget that we are asking some kids to punch above their weight.

During my schooldays, it was a bit elitist: if you were in the A stream and you took Latin you were deemed to be a good candidate for university. But there was an official yardstick, not only in terms of qualifications but also an informal recognition that you had the nous to cope with university.

Now we send people who, for instance, have never handed in an assignment on time during their school career. It isn't ethically defensible to send inadequately prepared people to higher education, knowing that they will fail.

So stop the conveyor belt and start examining the problems. Obviously, student finance is one, as is the lack of adequate support and counselling at university. But, most urgently of all, we need to look at the interface between schools and universities to determine what both sectors can do to bridge an increasingly yawning gap. What are we afraid of? That A Curriculum for Excellence is not the magical solution it's dreamt to be? That universities need to communicate with schools?

A huge amount of pretending goes on. We teachers read endless streams of glossy literature telling us about new initiatives. We go on courses and faithfully implement the ideas. Yet no one can tell us if we are actually making progress.

Remember, you can teach people to windsurf, you can buy them all the expensive equipment available. But if there is no wind you and they are stranded. Right now, such becalming is hindering the progress of students while the Scottish Executive continues to soothe us all with sweet but unsubstantial soundbites.

It's time to address these very depressing statistics and inject a drop of reality.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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