Irrelevant and damaging

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Patrick Tobin gives his personal response to Higher Still

With more than 400 boys and girls in upper secondary education at the Mary Erskine School and Stewart's-Melville College, I must declare an interest. The status quo may be unacceptable for Scotland but it has served our pupils pretty well. With few exceptions they find pathways into higher education, south as well as north of the wall, and we derive kudos and market advantage from our showing in the league tables.

Yet, in the pre-Howie consultation, we urged the need for reform. If the traditional breadth of the post-16 curriculum was the "jewel in the crown" we found much to criticise. Three examinations in three years was anti-educational. The two-term dash to Higher produced the cramming didacticism which the Entwhistles had seen as a specifically Scottish weakness. The Sixth Year was for too many students a demotivating and unproductive experience - and we spoke with the authority of well supported Sixth Year Studies courses. Our percentage of boys fluent in a modern language seemed deplorable - until Howie revealed that the national situation was far worse.

Meanwhile I was serving on the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. Howie brought home to us all the unsuitability of Higher curricula to about half of the S5 population and the pick-and-mix incoherence of the alternatives. Howie dismissed as a self-deluding sham any idea that a unitary system could be built off the three different levels of attainment at Standard grade and none of us demurred. Rather, our first reaction was excitement with Howie's bold, radicalism. Here was Scottish education embracing change with mathematical elegance.

Howie would have stretched the Treasury. This, coupled with the Advanced Higher itself, would have put a large question mark against the four-year Scottish degree course. As Bart McGettrick, of St Andrew's College, remarked, turkey's do not vote for Christmas. Nevertheless, it took a little while for the opposition to determine its line of attack. Pundits from Strathclyde demonstrated the staffing strains on schools. Concern was expressed that the baccalaureate system was too constricting and that S4 was too early to start upper secondary education. Howie's bridges and ladders were derided by the very people who now subscribe to the less credible pieties of Higher Still. Eventually there emerged the formula for dismissive consensus - Howie was divisive.

SCCC inclined towards bypassing Standard grade, but otherwise plumped for evolution rather than revolution. We then went into limbo, extended by a few months, while the Scottish Office unveiled with playful ambiguity its blueprint for the future, "Higher Still". For someone who had watched the debate unfold this was a remarkable document. Standard grade could be taken after all in S3, but without any change to its nature and therefore without any relevance to the mass of the population. Even for the independent schools the idea was a non-starter. Not to worry, the two-term dash would be addressed through the Advanced Higher, with the Higher retained only as a safety net to lure doubting pupils into upper secondary education. We asked whether Advanced Highers would be the sole currency for entry to prestige degree courses and whether the government perhaps would insist that Scots must have six years of secondary education before university. It soon became obvious that no such nettles would be grasped and that Higher Still would fail completely to solve the S6 problem. Indeed, every fundamental weakness of the Scottish "academic" stream - three exams in three years, the two-term dash, the aimless S6, the paucity of modern linguists - had been left untouched.

What about the 50 per cent ill-served by the status quo? Some specific components of Higher Still could profitably be implemented without delay, but in general I would argue that any true reform of upper secondary reform can only build from below, as the Howie Committee recognised when it strayed beyond its original terms of reference. It is inherently perverse to reform 16-18 while 5-14 reform is (fitfully and partially) reaching secondary education and before the logic of individual pathways has made its impact on the 14-16 curriculum in general and the Standard grade examination in particular. Last month I sent the SCCC our considered response to the consultation documents. We are as negative about the detail of Higher Still as we are doubtful of its premises.

The artificial division of Higher courses into 40 hour modules will foster within the two-year dash an even more acute tendency towards focused and over-didactic teaching. This will be accentuated, we fear, by the proposed increase in internal assessment. Together, these fashionable ideas are presumably responsible for making 120 hour courses last 160 hours. Valuable teaching time will certainly be wasted on the completion of modules and the preparation and fine-tuning of assessments. The staple diet of five Highers for the intelligent and able student will thereby be threatened and the greatest strength of Scottish upper secondary education, its breadth, imperilled.

Increased internal assessment will probably have other undesirable consequences. Over-anxious parents will resort to paid tutors and quack remedies. Teachers will face wholesome pressures to "over-award". The dangers of plagiarism are obvious and will be accentuated as IT pervades our schools and homes. The prevailed will gain and the under-privileged lose.

What advantage will be derived? Improved pass rates without better teaching and learning will simply be debased currency, at home and abroad. Indeed we perceive a serious threat to the credibility of Scottish awards, to the long-term detriment of Scottish students. It is difficult not to smell the classic fudge whereby the pursuit of equality of educational opportunity wanders off into the vain quest for equality of educational outcome, the very vice excoriated by David Blunkett when he unveiled the Labour party's plans for reform in England and Wales.

Core skills are either self-evidently necessary, as with literacy or numeracy, or they become wills-of-the-wisp. For able students English should be English Literature, an end in itself, and not a core skill. The interpersonal in upper secondary education is a dimension to be cultivated, not measured and assessed.

Higher Still will be as vulnerable to financial stringency as Howie would have been. The money is simply not available to finance meaningful reform. Already schools are being advised to teach different "levels" and to combine Higher and Advanced Higher students within the same groups. If this is to be the actual environment for change, what price differentiation, progression and all the other buzz-words? It is hardly a climate in which the disadvantaged will prosper.

The status quo is not an option, affirms the latest Higher Still glossy brochure, but the same brochure records the postponement of Higher Still by a year. A few more years of delay might be the best possible legacy for the next century.

Do not pretend that Higher Still will assist the more able, on whom so much ultimately depends, but realise how much damage is now threatened. Abandon Higher Still, or limit it to those sectors of education where reform is both necessary and achievable. Transfer the 400 people employed on Higher Still to more specifically profitable activity. Wait and see what we can do with 5-14 and then build wisely, when you have the money and the will-power to see it through. That is my message to the Government.

Patrick Tobin is principal of the Mary Erskine School and Stewart's-Melville College, Edinburgh.

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