Grasping the nettle on 10-14 courses;Platform;Opinion;News and opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
The primary-secondary divide is a key area of reform and there must be a uniform policy, says Fred Forrester.

A number of disparate developments are coming together to create a new debate on education at 10-14 in Scotland. The late David Robertson, whose report of 1986 was apparently shelved, may be permitted a wry smile. Likewise, the late James Meldrum, director for Stirlingshire, might be seen as something of a prophet with his development of middle schools in Grangemouth, a project that suffered from not having much enthusiastic support from either the elected councillors or the wider educational community.

There is an absence of any generally respected think-tank in Scottish education. Neither the Scottish Council for Research in Education nor the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University has achieved the kind of official recognition its work deserves. Ideas coming from the Inspectorate, from teacher unions and from some individual high-profile academics are looked on with suspicion. The educational community is over-aware of the grinding of axes and is inclined to dismiss interesting ideas if there is any hint of self-interest.

Currently there is a plethora of proposals affecting the years from primary 6 to secondary 2. Some come from education directorates and are presented as local initiatives. In truth, however, this is a national debate and should be pursued nationally. The education, culture and sport committee of the Parliament is one forum.

Let me look, first, at a paper by Michael O'Neill and his colleagues in North Lanarkshire. This directorate, with a number of others in different parts of Scotland, wishes to prise open the door created by the Government's limited relaxation of age and stage restrictions at Standard grade and Higher. The proposals - which interestingly are to be consulted upon nationally as well as locally - may be summarised thus: Standard grade courses to occupy S2 and S3; Higher Still provision to be introduced generally from S4 (and not just as a "fast track" for able pupils); common course to be confined to S1 only; 5-14 courses to become, effectively, 5-13 courses, with abandonment of level F.

There is a "throwaway" suggestion that specialist teaching should be introduced in the upper primary, balanced by a more "integrated" curriculum in S1. Clearly another paper would have to be produced on P6 to S1. Far from these three years being peripheral to the main O'Neill proposals, they are directly related to them.

In Argyll and Bute, the directorate has suggested a "lower secondary school" covering P7 to S3, with P7 pupils having a core teacher but receiving lessons from a range of secondary specialists. The S2 year would provide Standard grade courses for a minority (presumably selected on academic grounds) and 5-14 courses for the majority. In the "upper secondary school" (S4 to S6), the first year would allow a minority to pursue Higher Still courses and the majority to complete Standard grade courses. There is the difficulty here of Standard grade courses straddling the boundary between the two schools.

However, this is likely to be the least of director Archie Morton's problems. His proposals are postulated on a "shift system", with the "lower secondary" running from 8am to 1pm and the "upper secondary" active in the afternoons and early evenings. This is an impossibly radical proposal for an area like Argyll and Bute. Indeed it would be unlikely to be acceptable to parents and teachers. In Scotland, radical proposals must be tempered by pragmatism or they will surely be lost.

In other areas, including Stirling and Perth and Kinross, there are attempts to reduce the number of specialist teachers in S1. This in the context of addressing the alleged weaknesses in S1-S2 which have been flagged up in various national reports. Another way would be the "blocking" of minority subjects in S1-S2, in Aberdeen and elsewhere. This amounts to confining certain subjects to either S1 or S2 and providing a larger number of timetabled periods in these subjects in the chosen year.

If the current 10-14 debate is to have a constructive outcome and not become yet another interesting might-have-been, a number of awkward questions will have to be answered. Would a 5-13 curriculum not have even less credibility in the secondary sector than 5-14? If the answer is yes, should the boundary age between primary and secondary be re-examined?

If this boundary age were to be moved up or down, what would be the consequences for the prospective primary and secondary teaching forces and for the separate primary and secondary teaching qualifications? Whether or not there is a change in the boundary age, is there the possibility of having a mixture of primary and secondary approaches at 10-14?

The educational rationale of the O'Neill and other related proposals suggests an upward extension of primary education into the S1 year. However, such a move would widen the gap with practice in England and Wales in a way that would cause difficulty for families moving from one system to the other. In any case, the move from a generalist curriculum in S1 to beginning Standard grade in S2 would be even more difficult for pupils than the move from primary to the S1 common course. And the vested interests concerned would militate against any such change, effectively killing it.

The solution probably lies along the lines of merging curricula and teaching approaches at P6 to S2. In retrospect, the 5-14 curriculum has failed to achieve this because it was insufficiently radical. There should be moves towards a partial merger of primary and secondary teaching qualifications, possibly through creating a specialist qualification for the 10-14 years.

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

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