The god of literature may have feet of clay

8th August 2003 at 01:00
As next Tuesday's D-Day for exam results nears, Bill Boyd warns that Higher English is still seriously flawed

The usual summer "shock horror" claim that the pass mark in Higher English may have to be reduced to allow more passes misunderstands the process and obscures the real problem.

Teachers have always known instinctively that efforts are made to ensure consistency between years or, to put it simply, making sure by norm-referencing that roughly the same number of candidates passes each year, with a slight improvement built in to allow for improving standards and to demonstrate the validity of the exam.

One misguided suggestion by a politician was that many of this year's candidates have been disadvantaged by not being allowed to sit the Higher examination, and that they will be further disappointed to learn that the pass mark will be reduced for the second year running - the implication being that, since it would have been easier to pass, more would have done so.

This is not so, given the process of ensuring consistency between years.

Ironically enough, removing the submitted folio for external assessment could mean 2003's results more accurately reflect a candidate's abilities, as the influence of private tutors and recycled personal studies is less important.

Far from Higher English being easier to pass, one of the major issues teachers have with the revised "Revised Higher" is the difficulty in persuading a significant minority of candidates, and more importantly their parents, that the Higher is too difficult for them in S5, and that taking the Intermediate 2 course would be more appropriate. There is still much work to be done in convincing the general public to accept National Qualifications as a whole package.

The real problem for teachers and candidates is not lack of ability, but that the Higher English syllabus is seriously flawed, a problem created rather than solved by the last major subject review. Removing the externally-marked folio, ostensibly in response to teacher demands for a cut in workload, has removed objectivity, skewed the balance of the course and placed a greater responsibility on staff.

We would not accept a situation where our driving instructors decided whether or not we are granted a driving licence, yet that is the kind of situation teachers are now finding themselves in when it comes to assessing personal studies. How many of us, under pressure to achieve targets, wanting the best for our students and faced with a borderline essay, would deny them the chance of achieving an extremely valuable course award? It is inappropriate that teachers should be responsible for the summative assessment of their students' work in a national examination.

Furthermore, the removal of the writing folio and of formal report writing from the external examination was a mistake; the fact that the report remains as an optional element of the language unit is a red herring. It would be interesting to conduct a poll to find out how many of this year's candidates were taught this difficult but very worthwhile option. I suspect the number is low.

The ability to think for oneself, to construct an argument and to present it orally or in writing are vital skills for maturing young adults, yet it is quite feasible to complete a Higher English course without developing these skills to any meaningful extent. Instead, the god of "literature" reigns supreme.

In almost 30 years of teaching I have rarely read an original comment on a literary work of any merit, although the most able students can present their teachers' views admirably (and how many of those are original ideas?) So what next? Another review in the near future is highly unlikely, so the best advice to classroom teachers is to trust their instincts: construct a course which maintains the balance between language and literature, develops thinking skills, allows students to articulate their own ideas and encourages them to experiment with as many forms of writing as possible.

The Scottish Executive could also help matters by reducing the Standard grade course to one year or scrapping it altogether, as the endless rewriting of essays in S4 stifles creativity and does little to encourage students to be intelligent, independent thinkers.

The best advice to candidates is to make a realistic assessment of their current abilities and their long-term goals, and listen to the advice of their English teacher - who usually does know best.

Bill Boyd is assistant head at Prestwick Academy.

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