Higher Still will be a disaster for English

21st November 1997 at 00:00
It was with some relief, strangely, that I read that Higher Still English has some way to go before being accepted by teachers of English. It is very difficult for teachers to explain to the general audience why the arrangements given so far are unacceptable, without being thought of as "stuck-in-the-mud", negative troglodytes.

But first, and crucially, the new arrangements are going to increase pressure on students. Although the Howie report saw the dangers of the existing "two-term dash", the Higher Still group has managed to increase the number of assessable elements. On top of the current diet, students will have to pass textual analysis, both seen and unseen (at present an option), pass one of the three oralaural elements and pass all of their classwork to earn the right to take the exam. Students will be "bounced" from assessment to assessment, knowing that catching up will be difficult, if not impossible. Parents should note, holidays in term time will render it impossible to keep up. Falling ill is also not recommended.

Second, because teachers will be responsible for passing students much greater pressure has been put on their shoulders. If a student could not quite make the grade in report writing, I would have to withhold a pass. Even if the student passed the whole examination, he or she would be denied a qualification because of this one failure. Teachers would be in the invidious position of denying a student the chance to pass Higher if this internal element fails to satisfy.

At present, overall competence may compensate for one area of weakness. Why has that time-honoured system been changed? We are being asked to assess the report, have sole, unverifiable (how can group discussion be verified?) control over the oralaural element and decide that our students have met the minimum requirements of the examined elements before they can proceed. Imagine the pressure that this will create, as students and parents challenge assessment practices.

Third, the Higher Still group's method of presenting information about the new arrangements to teachers leaves everything to be desired. Since the beginning, we have tried to come to terms with over-long, wordy, unwieldy documents on which we had to make our responses. I have wondered what the Campaign for Clear English would have made of these documents, the last batch of which had more than 300 pages of reading, and which contained screeds of useless, unnecessary, repetitive advice from - remember - mainly non-English teachers to practising English teachers. And why is it that the English teacher, the classroom expert, is hardly represented on the panel?

My cynical side, mostly firmly under control, nags at me - was obfuscation a central purpose behind the presentation of these documents, which managed to fill so many English teachers with despair at the very prospect of trying to understand what it all meant, that they acquiesced?

A final point is hard to select from all of the others crying out for mention, but I highlight the unrealistic expectations of those students in the less academic groups. Although students working at Access level or even Intermediate 1 have shown through Standard grade that their mastery of English is basic, they are expected to perform most of the same tasks as those at Higher, even having to do a specialist study, where they must read something independently and write a complex essay on it, with the help available from the teacher as limited as it is with Higher students.

There is moreover no "skills English", no identification of what English teachers might do to help these young adults about to leave school for good. Instead, they have to write literature essays, have to learn their figures of speech and their grammatical and media terminology and write a very simple but formal report. No letter writing, no application forms, no analysis of materials they will encounter in life, but the usual boring routine of reading literature in order to write essays.

The whole thing is terribly disappointing. We are being told we have had our chance to be consulted and now we should just get on with it. We are offered very occasional meetings which we attend to be told what to do, where our genuine concerns are ignored. Yet from such meetings PTs who are there are somehow supposed to return to schools to "cascade" to others what we have learnt. There is deep-felt resentment and anger at the failure of the Higher Still English group to do its job: to construct realistic and meaningful courses to benefit all of Scotland's young people.

Edward Poyner is principal teacher of English at Carluke High School.

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