Caught in the crab's pincers

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
There are allegedly various ways to flay a feline. Back in March, Glasgow's education chairman stated that Pounds 3.2 million must be saved by shifting resources from buildings (the infamous 30,000 spare places) and reallocating these currently squandered sums to the schooling of children. Having since failed spectacularly to win over Labour's Nimby-minded rank and file, Malcolm Green is unsurprisingly concerned at the continuing flight from the city's secondaries to schools beyond its boundaries.

The resourceful Dr Green now returns to the fray, as indeed he must. Ingeniously, his officials have "discovered" a link between half-empty schools and low achievement. The closure exercise is to be repackaged in a report that will redefine the concept and structure of comprehensive schools. Surely this time ladders will be created down which even the stiffest crustaceans will be able to clamber with minimum loss of ideological face.

Glasgow City Chambers is not the only habitat of unreconstructed thinking. A tetchy attack on the HMI report Achievement For All from Brian Boyd of Strathclyde University's Quality in Education Centre comes to mind. In accusing the Inspectorate of "buying into a right-wing, elitist agenda", Dr Boyd seems unaware of current realpolitik. Labour now, both south and north of the border, has lined up behind the Government's belief in setting for achievement.

His tirade against early secondary setting actually defies logic. Does he subscribe to 5-14? That programme is all about individual progression. Already there is attainment grouping in primary schools, and from the third year of secondary school. So why not in the first two? Mixed-ability teaching in these two years effectively fractures the slender threat of individual progression in the Scottish curriculum.

Curiously, Dr Boyd argues in a letter to The TES Scotland that pupils themselves bemoan a lack of progression. HMIs bemoan that and more. Their recent report, Standards and Quality, contains a damning indictment of the status quo which may not be unconnected with the flight from Glasgow's schools. Some 40 per cent of establishments surveyed showed a failure to progress satisfactorily in S1S2.

How might this sobering fact relate to the 35 per cent of S1S2 courses recently found by HMI to be of only fair or unsatisfactory quality? Better assessment is needed, as are improved primary links, more homework, more challenge. Serious weaknesses in attainment are identified. No wonder the parents of 12-year-olds become nervous.

Is it not strange that one of Scotland's leading education researchers should argue research deficit here? The concerns of Standards and Quality are backed by solid evidence in the Assessment of Achievement Programme. In mathematics, four Scottish surveys since 1983 have revealed consistent decline in S1S2 performance. Initial findings from the 1995 survey suggest "poor" performance in S2 writing when measured against 5-14 guidelines. In the three subjects surveyed, English, maths and science, Scottish pupils were "making insufficient progress in their learning between P7 and S2".

International comparisons can only exacerbate the discomfort factor. Recent comparative studies show "relatively poor" Scottish performance in maths and "a low baseline and no improvement" in science. Scotland is "failing behind the Pacific Rim countries".

But perhaps there is comfort. The long battle to inject smooth individual progressions into Scottish education has in fact been largely won, as this evidence overwhelmingly demands. Children will be well served by S1 setting in maths and English, and by S2 setting in other key subjects.

Let us all, the cretaceous included, find a real live dragon to fight. How about a crusade on motivation for all and the need for high expectations in schools? After all, large dollops of "raise with praise" and "you can do it" don't even need Scottish Office guidelines.

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