English fails to make the grade

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Eight years ago Michael Forsyth made a point of praising teachers who "have clearly done a good job in maintaining standards in most aspects of language". Brian Wilson is a less generous Education Minister: he is disappointed by a lack of progress in English from P4 to P7 and is particularly concerned at the decline in performance by S2 pupils.

The contrast has to be put in context. Mr Forsyth was commenting on the 1989 Assessment of Achievement survey at the very outset of the 5-14 programme. He hoped that it would help raise standards still further. Mr Wilson's disappointment over the S2 findings is accompanied by an admonition to secondaries to use the year's delay in Higher Still to implement 5-14 fully in S1 and S2.

The Government has acted to counter the lack of progress by some pupils between P4 and P7. The early intervention budget, now totalling Pounds 13 million, is intended to help strugglers who pull down overall performance and are already in danger of become school leaver "failures".

The secondary problem may not be inherently less tractable, but so far there is less sign that it is being seriously addressed. Removing compulsory S1 and S2 tests will make teachers of English and mathematics better disposed to 5-14. Wholehearted commitment, evident in most primaries, is still absent, demanding as it does a wider examination of how the first years of secondary should be restructured to give pupils a more coherent, challenging and fulfilling experience.

Upper primary teachers who observe the problems encountered by their former pupils in "big school" will not be surprised that the AAP researchers note a falling off in performance by S2. Creative writing in particular poses difficulties. Imagination, coherence and control of the mechanics are all disappointing.

The survey offers an excuse: pupils accustomed to redrafting were not able to do so in the AAP test. For once, journalism may have something to teach the education profession. Word-processors allow immediate second thoughts and corrections. But there is much to be said for getting things right in a single draft. Pupils should learn that constant rewriting, especially by hand, takes too much time and is boring.

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