Higher Still or Call My Bluff?;Platform

5th January 1996 at 00:00
John Cushley on the need for care in ensuring post-16 reforms will actually work

Teachers have repeatedly been willing to attempt the impossible which has been foisted upon them under the guise of it being "for the good of the children".

The latest offering is Higher Still and currently doing the rounds is the "roadshow" attempting to convince the whole range of subject specialists that this is the answer. At least this time we are being told straight that schools will have to "prioritise" as far as resourcing the initiative is concerned. There will be little change in staffing or per capita allocation; so will it be another "impossible dream" from on high?

So many of the recent initiatives in education have arrived with wonderful promises about the benefits they would bring only to retreat into the shadows as not having measured up to expectations or, even sadder, having been dumped as unworkable. Consequently, teachers are very aware when they are being offered a non-runner but now they raise comparatively little fuss compared with their reaction to similar proposals in the past. Indeed, they are liable to become involved in these ventures as members of working parties or even as representatives of the professional associations.

Have we become so used to the "new initiative" process that we are now virtually immune to its effects? Or have staff worked it out that, since the required resources will never be provided, there is no likelihood of the initiative ever being viable, so why get worked up about it? There is also some suspicion that some in the profession aspiring themselves to be "higher still" will see this as yet another opportunity to stick the hand up and say, "I'll do it".

In fairness to the profession, there is no doubt that many new ideas have been founded on admirable principles. Who would now deny that comprehensive schools prevented late developers from being labelled as "failures" before they had reached their teens?

There was more attention in the comprehensive setting to those with serious learning difficulties. But it has to be acknowledged that some of the ways of catering for pupils at this level were less than imaginative. This provided the ammunition for the researchers to blow a massive hole in a structure which only needed a relatively minor repair. Now we look as if we are about to do the same thing again.

The combination of statistics related to those not coping with the Ordinary grade exams added to the existence of those whose learning difficulties prevented them from coping with the curriculum at all were used to support the assertion that "every child is special" and the way not to have "young people in trouble" was to ditch the existing examination system and introduce Standard grade which would allow all young people to achieve at their own level of ability. Unfortunately the real world was intervening and divisive labels like Credit and, even worse, Foundation were being attached - and here they are being used again in Higher Still! Do we never learn? Tossed into the melting pot at the same time was the notion that real equality of opportunity would only be there if all pupils were following the same "modes"; so those with specific learning difficulties who had problems reading English would find themselves in a modern languages class. Just to make it more of a challenge, the teacher would also have some pupils who had no interest whatsoever in continuing with that language alongside some for whom it was to be an important subject in their pathway to, say, higher education. "Differentiation" was the magic wand required. At least that was what the experts (that is, researchers) said and if staff wanted to hear the theory and philosophy, they were always willing to come along, at around pound;400 a day, to talk about differentiated approaches and materials and tasks but they were rarely, if ever, seen down among the fourth years differentiating away their lack of je ne sais quoi.

These experts were often joined by courtiers whose quest for advancement meant they were not prepared to point out to the emperors that they were unclothed. Reality, however, reared its head again, this time among employers who along with higher education institutions, introduced the strange idea that there had to be a bottom line at band 3 of Standard grade. Quietly the schools also introduced realism and even went further with many of them setting Credit 2 as the lower limit for entry into Higher courses. As a result, Standard grade's credibility as a worthwhile means of certification for all sank without trace.

Schools, as they always do, just got on with the job in hand. Appraisal and mentoring were vying with the twin nightmares of 5-14, environmental studies and expressive arts, to be the topic for derision among the staffroom "dinosaurs" but everyone understood that the real targets were linked to your place in the "league table" and how you compared with the opposition.

Revised Higher had just taken off and it was clear that, with so many youngsters being forced back into schools after 16 because of a lack of employment or training, some adjustments were required in the curriculum for that age group to ensure that they had suitable options. There were numerous short course and module options so it should be possible during "professional activity time" and in-service days to work towards this need. But would staff be allowed the leeway to come fully to terms with the extra demands of the new courses and work on the different moduleshort course options? No chance.

This was the perfect opportunity for the Howie report, which had been severely criticised, to be brought back from the dead and given a new name. All of its former allies could jump back on the bandwagon and be joined by some new recruits. They all saw another possibility of enhancing their access to potential "lifelines".

After all, the new "universities" had to compete for money (oops - students) to run their courses and some of them gave youngsters a great chance in life. Sometimes you didn't even need to pass an exam to get in. The Government was delighted. More and more young people would stay on at school, would enter higher education and stay off the unemployment register.

So onward marches the Higher Still army. Meetings take place, consultation is ongoing but only "positive" responses are likely to be heeded, we are told. Advertisements appear for "development officers" and the hands go up. It is all so frustrating that once again schools, staff and pupils are being used to further the interests of many different factions who see them as ideal "shop windows" for advertising their wares.

But the bluff is about to be called, it would seem, now that the foot-soldiers from the classrooms are actually being allowed to contribute to the discussions. It is worth remembering, of course, that no initiative can actually work without their participation and co-operation in the frontline and - surprise, surprise - they are raising some serious questions about the viability of Higher Still. For example, given the difficulty already experienced with teaching different levels of ability in the same group, will the current mania about "league tables" be put aside to reduce the pressure that is sure to be caused by such a major educational change? The cynics say that there is no need to worry on this score: the league table statistics post-Higher Still are sure to be significantly better than those before it.

My concern is that the people that all of this was meant to benefit - the pupils - will end up as the losers because staff are being forced to introduce, in some areas, significantly altered curriculum packages. This is bound to take time and it cannot be forgotten that they also have a responsibility to allocate sufficient time to their current classes to prepare them for examinations.

Please let us look beyond the end of our nose and recognise that if all these changes are really what pupils need, we should be confident enough of that to allow the time and money to be spent preparing schools and staff properly for their introduction. If that requires further delay in the timetable already set, so be it.

John Cushley is assistant headteacher in a Lanarkshire secondary. His views are personal.

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