Few of us have clean hands over reforms

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
Higher Still and the 5-14 programme may founder because of institutional conservatism, fears Fred Forrester

I WROTE about the 10-14 curriculum in the TESS last December, and said that "In Scotland, radical proposals must be tempered by pragmatism or they will surely be lost". There is now the strong possibility that both the 5-14 programme and Higher Still will ultimately founder because their architects did not sufficiently allow for the institutional conservatism of our educational system.

Institutions consist mainly of individuals whose interests may be adversely affected by change. In Scotland, however, the client bodies - parents, students, local politicians - often form part of the resistance. Typically, a reform will be welcomed in principle but resisted in practice. Many concerned with developing Scottish education, including the Educational Institute of Scotland and myself, have some complicity in this. Few of us have clean hands.

First, take the 5-14 programme. It was a major reform extensively discussed in the wake of the Munn and Dunning reports of 1977. It sought to bridge the gap between primary and secondary schools in a way which would address problems in S1 and S2 even then being identified. The curriculum was analysed according to a primary sector child-centred philosophy, identifying five broad areas. Little attention was paid to how this pattern could be operated in a subject-based S1 and S2, though there was much bland talk about better primary-secondary liaison.

Some progress has now been made in implementing 5-14 in the two secondary departmental areas, English language and mathematics, which corresponded to primary school curriculum areas. Clearly the persistent workload and resourcing problems of the last decade and a half have not helped.

A more fundamental problem, however, has been that the ethos of the secondary school is geared to external assessment. While there is no external examination at the end of S2, in fact the S2 year is increasingly dominated, for teachers, pupils and parents, by subject choices for Standard grade.

The Higher Still reform was also widely debated in the wake of the Howie Report and the earlier 16-18 Action Plan. There was wide support for the concept of extending comprehensive and inclusive education, especially as the pupil stay-on rate meant that this age was less of a meaningful threshold. The consensus was that an academicvocational divide did not serve the interests of a large body of pupils. In retrospect , the Howie Committee's call for two parallel certification systems was too lightly dismissed.

But no one anticipated the huge problem of delivering the system in both secondary schools and further education. Filling educational gaps is an important part of the raison d'etre of further education. The large number of short-term andor part-time students and of adult returners necssitates a short-term approach to assessment. Hence the Scotvec modular system and the use of moderated integral assessment.

The Scottish secondary school, on the other hand, takes an essentially long-term view and expects its senior pupils to stay for at least the full school session.

So the secondary programme is geared to session-long courses with external assessment. This truth was blurred but not obliterated by the introduction of some internal assessment at Standard grade and the offering of Scotvec modules in the upper school.

It is hence not surprising that the secondary schools struggle with the internal assessment of Higher Still units while the FE colleges are apprehensive over external examinations. A second diet of such examinations has been introduced to meet the needs of FE (but may cause some unintended problems in the secondary sector).

Internal assessment in secondaries is now the major problem affecting Higher Still implementation, however. Discontent among secondary teachers about both the rationale and the workload burden of internal assessment is rife. "Academic" subjects such as English are most affected.

Among the solutions being informally canvassed are different approaches to assessment for different groups of "cognate" subjects, where some groupings would see mainly secondary school subject areas and others are mainly FE areas. However, any resolution along these lines will be at the expense of the rationale of a unified system and will produce problems in the slightly longer term.

We cannot quibble over the efforts of those responsible for the curricula - whether the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum for 5-14 or the Scottish Qualifications AuthorityHigher Still Development Unit for Higher Still - to make the systems work. From the point of view of these bodies, their role is limited to carrying out the political remit they have been given and smoothing out the problems.

While there is evident truth in this attempt to allocate roles and responsibilities, the Scottish Educational establishment has some collective responsibility. Politicians rely on the advice of experts and they have not always been well advised over the years.

If 5-14 and Higher Still are now, after mature reflection, seen as bridges too far because they did not factor in the problems of institutional and sector identity and resistance, then an attempt should be made to find new solutions which will build on all the development work of recent years.

Ultimately, political decisions will be required. We have a new political sounding board in the form of the education, culture and sport committee of the Scottish Parliament. But the educational establishment should get its act together before approaching the politicians.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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