Don't blame S grade for Higher English

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Accusations of a 'corrosive invasion of thinking' are frightening nonsense, says Martin Everett

David Cockburn's argument (Viewpoint, December 19) that the present shambles of a Higher English course will somehow be improved by the abolition of Standard grade is highly contentious. Most teachers of English would agree that it would be better to abolish the present Higher and start again.

When I began teaching in 1973, the Higher English examination consisted of a creativedescriptivediscursiveexpressive essay; a report (an essay, based on a set of notes about a factual topic, that tested candidates'

ability to select, order, group and link given material); two comprehensions; and three critical essays, one each on drama, prose and poetry, with the option of replacing one of these three by an unseen practical criticism (textual analysis) question.

In total, the three examination papers consumed almost five hours but all areas of the subject, with the exception of talk, were assessed. The majority of teachers of English who remember this syllabus, which ran until the late 1980s and with which Mr Cockburn himself was involved, believe that it was far superior to the Scotvec-driven rump that remains.

What in fact are we left with? Report writing, probably the most useful skill of all, has long gone; the essay remains only as a half-hearted attempt to retain at least some element of assessment of pupils' writing, if only on a pass-fail basis; textual analysis remains as a NAB; the review of personal readingspecialist study of the Revised Higher folio has become another timed critical essay.

The examination now consists of a giant comprehension (nearly 200 lines of text) and two critical essay questions - all, apparently, that can be fitted into the three-hour strait-jacket. Does Mr Cockburn seriously believe that this apology for a course, representing as it does for most pupils the last English tuition that they will receive, has been spawned as the result of 20 years of "the corrosive invasion of Standard grade thinking"? If Standard grade had influenced the Higher, expressive and transactional writing would have been retained, as would the valuable talk component that was introduced fleetingly a few years ago.

The Standard grade talk requirement has produced a massive improvement in pupils' confidence to communicate generally and to express themselves to an audience, qualities often lacking prior to the 1980s and which are essential in today's world.

Mr Cockburn also castigates the approach of Standard grade to literature, purely on the basis that literature is termed "reading". It should surely be clear to him that not all pupils are capable of studying "Shakespeare, Milton, Keats", as he seems to expect; for some, "The Granny Project" may be more appropriate, and basic literacy skills may be more important.

The beauty of Standard grade is that the choice of literature is left up to the teacher. There are no prescribed texts (unlike the turgid collection set for Revised Higher during the 1990s). What has led to the "emphasis on worksheets and writing projects" that Mr Cockburn rightly criticises is in fact the insistence on mixed-ability teaching in S1 and S2, which means that the teacher cannot teach a text to the whole class; instead, pupils in groups have to teach themselves (maybe) through worksheets.

If classes are set by ability, with movement between the sets as pupils make progress, then there is no reason why the most able should not benefit from a varied diet of literature, as advocated by Mr Cockburn. Pupils in the top set that I taught for three years from S2 to S4 studied the following texts and produced critical essays on all of them, in addition to essays on novels of their own choice: Prose - Empty World; A Christmas Carol (the original text); Underground to Canada; Walkabout; The Pearl; Of Mice and Men. Drama - The Merchant of Venice; The Mayor of Casterbridge (dramascript); Billy Liar; Macbeth; An Inspector Calls; Measure for Measure; Othello. Poetry - Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost.

Mr Cockburn's suggestion that Standard grade should be abandoned so that more time can be devoted to Higher is frightening. Shall we spend two or three years preparing pupils to sit a giant reading comprehension and to write two critical essays? How much more mind-numbingly boring can we make the Higher course? Spending one year on it is bad enough, but two or three?

Does Mr Cockburn seriously believe that the present Higher can ever become a "quality course"? This is surely an oxymoron; if it isn't, it is because of the hard work of teachers and departments who try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and enrich the sterile basic requirements.

Does the present Higher course "encourage language development in interesting, novel and challenging ways"? Has Mr Cockburn tried teaching it?

Martin Everett is principal teacher of English at Lomond School, Helensburgh.

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