Heroes and villains or a hard row to hoe?

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Higher Still does not deserve the wrath visited upon it by the author of a new book, argues Ron Tuck

LINDSAY Paterson's Crisis in the Classroom analyses the evolution of Higher Still in the wake of August's events. He questions key tenets of the reforms and the nature of educational policy-making.

His book mixes thoughtful analysis with polemic - at times we find ourselves in a story of cardboard heroes and villains.

Paterson's thesis is that there was neither a real consensus over Higher Still nor a coherent educational philosophy. But let's recap the post-Howie consultation.

The Howie committee's critique of the status quo was accepted, as was his presentation of the desired characteristics of upper secondary education.

The Scottish Office recognised that there was broad agreement over philosophy. What respondents wanted was Howie without "twin-tracking" or an S3 Standard grade. Higher Still was a slim document partly because there was no need to restate Howie's rationale - we didn't wish to present a detailed blueprint but to work from principles to detail through consultation. Paterson, though, argues that consultation was about the mechanics and not the principles.

Early discussions with headteachers, however, threw up overwhelmingly practical concerns, eg how would it be possible to timetable 5 x 160-hour Highers? Generic consultation documents, such as on core skills, drew the widespread response that it was difficult to comment on the principles without seeing the detail. The principles had therefore to be tested concretely.

For Paterson, the story is of warnings (from the heroes) ignored (by the villains). Was it really like that? Let's take some examples:

Teachers' concerns about bi-level teaching. Yes, but the fundamental problem predating Higher Still is how to provide adequate subject choice at sufficient levels for the S5 cohort. The alternatives are restricted choice or a significant increase in funding.

More than "minimum curriculum change". Yes, but some subjects were due for updating, their revision having been stalled by "Howie blight".

As for the results debacle, there is no recognition of the great challenges faced by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, only blame.

Paterson also takes sides in particular subject controversies. Thus Tom Conlon et al are the heroes in the computing studies debate. They may be right, but there were many teachers on the other side of the fence.

In English and Communication, Paterson seems to believe that an emphasis on communicative competence is incompatible with the cultural purposes of English. This may be correct, but many English teachers would disagree. And much of "civic Scotland" believes in more emphasis on writing and speaking.

Curricular controversy is normal and healthy. It doesn't have to be a conspiracy against the teaching profession. And sometimes there is no simple resolution.

But we should test Paterson's thesis on its potentially strongest grond: unit assessment.

Unit assessment brings together the principles of modularisation and internal, criterion-based assessment. As Paterson admits, there was strong support for modularisation in the Howie responses. Howie proposed that assessment be criterion-based and this was viewed in consultation as uncontroversial.

Paterson doesn't really understand this. He contrasts "norm-referenced" Highers and "competence-based" modules. But, of course, Highers weren't norm-referenced. If they had been, pass rates could not have risen. The aim is to maintain the same required standard over time.

Modular assessment is outcome-based, and outcomes can be as broad or as tight as seems appropriate. The aim of both variants of criterion-based assessment is fairness and openness.

However, while the principle of criterion-based assessment is widely supported, the way in which the principle is put into effect is far from uncontroversial.

Responding to an early document on assessment from the Higher Still Development Unit, teachers clearly were against mechanistic "tick-box" assessment.

Were these views ignored? On the contrary. We developed ideas of holistic unit assessment: a focus on the attainment of outcomes rather than individual performance criteria; and the use of assessment instruments which covered more than one outcome and preferably the whole unit. These principles were interpreted in each subject by development officers - usually, experienced teachers. (Though final responsibility rested with the HSDUSQA.)

We were also conscious of workload issues and gave general guidance that internal assessment should not exceed the normal volume of formative assessment.

Overall, we had mixed success. In some subjects, there has been assessment overload; in others, it has worked reasonably well. Most students, I believe, support unit assessment, provided it is made more manageable.

Incidentally, one surprise of the book is how, with the deftness of a good mystery writer, Paterson finally supports a wholly internally-assessed system.

Where does Crisis in the Classroom take us? In many ways, it points in the right directions: we do need to create more open forums for educational policy-making.

What Paterson's analysis obscures, however, is that Higher Still faced dilemmas incapable of simplistic resolution, that there was a sincere attempt to listen to teachers, that development was done in partnership with experienced teachers and that the inevitable errors were made in good faith.

The blame culture as applied to teachers is deplorable. It is no better when applied elsewhere in the education community. A democratic Scotland needs the openness and critical spirit which Paterson rightly espouses. It will also need tolerance, objectivity and a willingness to treat opponents with respect.

Ron Tuck was until August chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Crisis in the Classroom is published by Mainstream at pound;7.99.

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