Don't shoot the messenger

15th December 2000 at 00:00
If Ron Tuck's edgy response (TESS, December 1) to Lindsay Paterson's Crisis in the Classroom had really been a review, then it would have noted how it moves readily and accessibly through five modes: the drama and trauma of August 2000, a history of the Highers, an examination of philosophies of the senior school, a dovetailing of event sequences since 1992 and a sifting of suggestions for the way forward.

Despite Mr Tuck's prickly remarks about "cardboard heroes and villains", the tone is equable throughout, and the incidence of praise is high indeed. As regards apportionment of criticism, Lindsay Paterson acknowledges that his own early analysis, at the time of Howie, had its defects, compared with that of his former colleague Professor Andrew McPherson, who favoured a more evolutionary response that developed a combination of Highers and the National Certificates.

Above all, Crisis in the Classroom is admirably polemical in that it makes it clear why the HMI-dominated education structure, having offered such misplaced certitude and such stiff-necked rejection of grassroots opinion, must now undergo a major devolution of initiative and responsibility. The days of limping compliance are over: no education change in Scotland can expect to thrive henceforward without consent, and only after full, atient, representative debate.

The quality of the book is best indicated by one of its concluding suggestions. As internal unit assessments retreat from Moscow for a second winter, and as it becomes clear that Higher Still external examinations are themselves hampered by timetable compression and the ditching of concordancy tests, Professor Paterson takes out Occam's razor.

Without pretending it is a ready-made solution, he asks us to examine the Swedish approach, which lodges final judgment of pupil work with teachers and which uses testing to refine, but not replace, that judgment. It is, of course, the approach which was taken by Aberdeen and Stirling Universities when they decided in August to accept students on the basis of estimates produced through classwork and prelims.

As Lindsay Paterson pertinently points out: "The enormous amounts of assessment entailed in Higher Still have not reassured people about standards."

He asks us to note that Higher Still, unlike previous education reform, endorses no cultural purposes, and that what is undoubtedly being lost is Professor John Anderson's perspective, in Education and Enquiry, that the purpose of young life is not exam grades, but to prepare the ground for leading an educated existence.John Aberdein

Stromness, Orkney

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