English in crisis

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
English epitomises the problems with Higher Still. The subject has seen concessions from the Government - on the amount of internal assessment - but critics in the schools remain unconvinced. Likewise, it has voted #163;24 million extra for the programme as a whole but that has not been enough to stay the hand of the unions, which are now set on boycott ballots.

Like other subjects English has to appeal to further education students as well as school pupils. Significantly unlike other subjects it changes name when moving sectors. "Communications", as it is known in FE, seems less contentious to its teachers than "English", partly because colleges are more used to curricular quick-change acts, partly because the internal assessment which worries schools is so familiar in FE, and partly because it does not have the focal position it retains in school-based Highers.

Pupils aspiring to higher education will continue to hope for a good qualification in English. It will remain an academic benchmark, although teacher critics of the new courses fear excessive concessions to vocationalism. The fact that English teachers are unhappier with Higher Still than those of almost any other subject is unfortunate because the subject is so important.

In colleges, communications is a component for many qualifications. It is intended to ensure that students experience "education" as well as training, but it is no doubt difficult to frame English-communications courses that suit technicians and academic high-fliers. The principle of Higher Still, with several levels under a single assessment banner, was meant to answer that problem but feasibility and acceptability are proving elusive.

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