The English patient sickens;Platform;Comment;Opinion

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Eddie Poyner puts forwarda practical alternative to theproposed Higher Still courses.

I wrote recently about the growing dissatisfaction with Higher Still English. A recent training day did not help allay any fears, especially when a justification was made that we are supposed simply to accept - this is a wonderful opportunity to improve the quality of teaching at senior level, and it must not be ruined by a group quite out of touch with, students' needs and the burden of assessment experienced by teachers. When one is confronted with such irrepressible justification, it is not hard to see why critical consultation responses were summarily dismissed.

What should make resistance more formidable were three admissions from the the Higher Still Development Unit. First, we were told that it is the Government that is insisting on the internal assessment burden, and not the unit, which seems incredible. Would the Scottish Office confirm this?

Second, we were given a brief but revealing insight into HMI statistics when told that more than half of English departments offered students only two literature texts, and that is why Higher Still courses will be obliged to offer three. In the same speech, we were then told of an "exceptional" department that offered in total 28 different practice assessments over the year, and that it would be reasonable to assume that all departments could tackle 25 or so under Higher Still. The point of this is that vague statistics can be dragged out of the memory banks to justify the overburdening excess of the new Higher Still arrangements. By all means offer guidelines, but realistic ones.

Third, the possibility of a delay in implementing Higher Still in 1999 was firmly denied, even if English teachers felt the programme could not be managed.

The question of assessment is the one that causes most concern. Marking has always taken up a great deal of a teacher's time, but it has become much worse, especially because of the nature of the former Scotvec courses, where students may be reassessed more than twice. Another difficulty is that teachers have to find effective ways of helping students meet the criteria, and this has resulted in either the teacher writing copious notes or interviewing students out of class, at lunch times or after school.

This is the same whether marking work by a first-year class or a fifth-year one. English teachers have long considered their subject "practical" and, considering the cross-curricular importance of their marking, hoped for reduced class sizes in order that more time could be spent improving students' work. Higher Still is taking us in the other direction.

What kind of English course is needed for students these days? The emphasis should be on linguistic competence. External examinations should reflect this. All students should be required to demonstrate skills in reading and writing of the kind they might have to use after school. Reading tests should be drawn from contemporary journalism, and seek to test understanding of content and style.

Writing tests should be formal - essays, articles, reports, letters - with the clear emphasis on competence, even to the extent of allowing students to take a dictionary or thesaurus into the exam room and allowing them time to produce their best work, which they do not have now. It seems an old-fashioned idea but I would favour a proof-reading test for Higher and Intermediate 2 students, and a dictation test for Intermediate 1 and Access students.

All literature should be assessed internally, by the teacher and department alone, unless a student's ambitions lie in studying literature or a linked subject at tertiary level. Who cares whether or not a student can write an essay or do a textual analysis in a formal examination setting? Such activities suit the classroom much more, with time available to plan, research, write and redraft. All students of a given level would undertake a minimum number of texts to study, from four genres, prose, drama, poetry and journalism, with much of the assessment coming from research and subsequent oral response, together with a fixed number of written responses, one essay and one textual analysis.

The specialist study would be similar to the present review of personal viewing, but it would not be submitted to the Scottish Qualifications Authority unless the student was entering for the literature section of the course, in which case an external examination would also be sat. The certificate would reflect this second achievement.

As oral and aural skills are taught, encouraged, enhanced in many curricular areas of the school, it makes sense that all teachers should have a say in writing a description of a student's talk profile. A plan would have to be drawn up to cope with the administration, but it should not tax a school to include a written profile as part of a student's record of achievement, where it would give an employer some real information rather than a meaningless number or grade.

There would be no need, therefore, for a folio to be sent off in respect of every student. The only students affected would be those tackling formal literature. A pass at Higher or Intermediate 2 levels would indicate a strong level of competence, a concern for spelling, punctuation and structural qualities and a desire to write clearly and accurately.

In summary, here are my proposals. All students will cover literature in the same way in a more relaxed and informal setting. Only those who want to study Higher language skills later will opt for the external examination. Only at Higher will a specialist study be offered, and at Higher and Intermediate 2 students will write one literature essay and do one textual analysis. Assessment will be otherwise by research and oral response. At Intermediate 1 and Access, assessment will be by short answer tests and by oral response. Emphasis will be on enjoyment and participation.

The external examination will test formal skills. All students will have a reading test at their level taken from recent journalism. Higher and Intermediate 2 students will write a report or article on a prepared topic, and do a proof-reading test; Higher students will also write a letter on an unseen topic. Those taking Higher literature will write an essay and do a textual analysis, and submit their specialist study for external marking. Students at Intermediate 1 and Access levels will write a letter on a prepared topic and do a dictation test.

Talk and listening skills will be assessed across the curriculum and a profile included in the school's own record of achievement certificate.

Such arrangements would be relevant and manageable. Something on these lines would lead to a course that would stand the test of time.

Eddie Poyner is principal teacher of English at Carluke High School.

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