Ditch the politics that poisoned Higher Still

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Reform must be grounded in genuine educational needs not a corrupting drive to assessment, says Tony McManus

In defending Higher Still, Tom Kelly states (TESS, December 15): "Many of the critics want to turn the clock back to old 17-plus preconceptions of the 'gown and parchment' model of early adulthood, concentrating resources, attention and certification on selection of the best students for the best places in the best universities."

I have been pretty closely involved in the Higher Still debate for more than three years and I have neither seen nor heard anyone, anywhere advocate such a thing. What I have heard, repeatedly, are apologists for Higher Still like Mr Kelly, of the Association of Scottish Colleges, accusing its critics of "elitism" in various forms, and of being opposed to the "principles" behind Higher Still when they subject modularisation and internal summative assessment to critical analysis.

The resort to smear and the wilful confusing of matters of principle with aspects of design have been and remain the tactics of the apologists for this failed system. Why? Presumably, because they have no educational arguments to counter our critical analysis.

What they do have, alarmingly, are complacency and arrogance to pathological levels. Mr Kelly's article is only one more example of this to go alongside the recent defence of the system by Dennis Gunning of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in the Herald, Ron Tuck's churlish response to Lindsay Paterson's Crisis in the Classroom (TESS, December 1), David Raffe's slanderous accusation in a letter to the Scotsman of lack of commitment on the part of teachers to "non-academic" pupils and Douglas Osler's remarkable affirmation as head of the Inspectorate to the Parliament's education committee inquiry that all was going well with Higher Still until the pupils sat their exams.

The fact is, of course, that Higher Still never had any principles in the first place. It was always a political initiative struggling to acquire an image of educational authenticity and integrity. Teachers and pupils could simply choose to be swept aside or up by the "juggernaut". Unfortunately, if I may switch to Mr Kelly's metaphor, some of us noticed that there was no "baby", simply a great deal of terribly dirty bathwater, mainly emanating from the Scottish Vocational Education Council, which required to be sluiced.

The SQA, fairly predictably, given that it was handed a system of no substance and many flaws to administer, began the sluicing process for us unintentionally. However, it is not yet finished and the prospect of another debacle in 2001 is already looming with the same problems as last year presenting themselves already.

There are signs of hope, but they must be turned into reality with greater urgency than is presently apparent. The education committee's report has, to some extent, clarified the context in which we are tryng to think all this through. At last the powers that be are recognising officially that the problems lie in the Higher Still programme itself, not simply with the SQA. That is vital. We can find no way out of the mess without that admission.

The committee's report agrees with what teachers, especially teachers of English, have been saying all along: the arrangements for internal summative assessment are unworkable and, because they "drive" the programme and are open to misuse, undesirable.

The situation remains deadly serious and requires urgent, as well as long term, action. Problems in the system are not only with Higher Still. The assessment-driven curriculum which previous inspectors and Professor John Howie's committee warned against, is present too in the 5-14 programme. The processes are corrupting and destructive of genuine educational values.

The Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature has three proposals.

First, immediately remove internal summative assessment. This would allow the SQA to deliver next year's certificates on time and with accuracy; allow teachers and pupils to teach and to learn instead of engaging in an inter-minable paper chase (one survey reveals an average of 40 assessments per Higher Still pupil last year); and bring internal formative assessment back to its proper professional role.

Second, ensure reforms to current policies such as Higher Still are carried out and future initiatives properly scrutinised by creating subject panels elected by class teachers at local and national level. This will help ensure that future consultation is genuine and that those who have the knowledge and experience and who actually have to implement policy are fully involved in the process.

Third, set up a standing Convention on Scottish Education reflecting the educational and the national communities, so that we can take the opportunity offered by the collapse of the system to engage in the philosophical and cultural debate about the nature and purpose of education in Scotland which is so badly needed and which Higher Still's architects, working to a design without principle, sought to destroy.

To be in favour of opportunity for all, proper esteem for vocational training and lifelong learning does not necessarily mean being in favour of Higher Still. If this year has taught us anything it is that Higher Still could not meet its purported aims. The system broke down catastrophically at exactly the point at which the vocational and the academic, the college and the school, the internal and the external assessments were supposed to "merge". They didn't, because the design was fundamentally flawed.

We have to work out a more principled and more competent programme grounded in genuine educational needs rather than political manipulation.

Tony McManus is chair of the Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature.

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