Give me joy and give me progress;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
IF YOU were going to redesign comprehensive education for the next century, you would not come up with the beast we know today. You would build in changes to enable more pupils to realise their potential. What I'd love is to develop ideas that would steal the show because they addressed the needs of pupils rather than the demands of the glossy speak of party political manifestos.

Consider the facts. Life in mixed-

ability classes has its complex side, which is hitting me with immediacy right now because I have five first-year classes.

A typical class will encompass the whole range of the 5-14 levels in English. This is when all the noble aspirations of the comprehensive ideals are severely tested, not to mention the skill of the teacher who is dealing with the equivalent of teaching five-year-olds right through to 15-year-olds in the same class. That's without even taking into account the pupil who will be exceptionally talented - way beyond the confines of the 5-14 programme.

One or two thoughts on what this means in practice. During a discussion on belief in God one of my first-year pupils contributed as follows: "This problem reminds me of Descartes and his philosophy of 'I think, therefore I am'." Such was the sparkle in her eye and exhilaration in her voice that I would not have been at all surprised if she had used the original Latin of "Cogito ergo sum".

Yes, as a teacher it was a joy to hear such a response from an 11-year-old but how can I give that pupil the stimulus she deserves and at the same time not totally lose the child who is unable to read and write but is sitting in the same class?

I realise that people with zero knowledge of such a situation may well consider me defeatist, and, indeed, I remain open to suggestions as to how I might handle it. Step forward with the solution if you like but don't be offended if I am not holding my breath. And don't misconstrue what I am saying - I am as concerned about the least able pupil as I am about the most able.

Yes, we all know that, in the bad old pre-comprehensive past, the academically most challenged child was branded for life at the end of primary school. The ignominy of junior secondary followed and, well, the rest is history. You might be revving up to give me a piece of your mind but there is no point in hurling charges of elitism here because I am certainly not defending the past.

While comprehensive education may well be to the advantage of the average child, the jury must be close to recording a verdict of doubtful benefit to the very bright and the very poor child.

Brace yourself to envisage an ever repeating scenario. A child with moderate to severe learning difficulties is niggling his neighbour. He is asked to behave . . . he starts drumming his pen on the desk . . . his seat takes on the mantle of a rocking chair. The teacher is desperately trying to explain a fairly complicated task to the class.

Increasingly, the resentment builds up. You see the offender as a total pest especially when you have to stop what you are doing to police his activities. You may or may not have a support for learning teacher or an unqualified helper in the classroom. There is no uniformity throughout Scotland on this one.

So where do we go from here? The major issue here is not about the control of nuisances (be they bright or not) but about providing opportunities for all the levels of ability within a class. Asking for more specialist help is costly but it is the only way that I can do justice both to the needs of the aspiring young philosopher and the non-reader.

But, even with two teachers in every class, some streaming will be necessary so that resources are deployed in classes with the most need. Balk all you want at the thought of such a backward step - but then, you probably consider yourself clever and we all know how majestically stupid clever people can be. Comprehensive education? I want progress.

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