It's a sucker's game;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Teachers simply aren't militant overHigher Still - and perhaps that's the problem, says Andrew Gallacher

OH HOW we laughed . . . "Militants in the Educational Institute of Scotland?" If only. With the pantomime season at an end the words "wishy" and "washy" spring to mind and no one was really surprised that the Higher Still boycott did not materialise despite overwhelming support. Oh yes we will . . . Oh no we won't.

One group of people, however, would have been even more disappointed by this turn of events. Historically, whenever a boycott or work to rule is implemented, educational carpetbaggers and main-chancers step out of the wings, as seen during the frantic, early years of Standard grade and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI).

This breed of teacher is not so much interested in curriculum as curriculum vitae, and is easily identified by the mating call, "It's in the best interests of the pupils", as they distance themselves further from the classroom. Indeed, many eminent contemporary figures in education emerged from past initiatives which were, in their day, anathema to one union or another.

Meanwhile, those of us who fell into line with agreed union policy were not involved in writing parties or steering groups, thus allowing initiatives to be hijacked by those who had their own agenda. In any other workplace they would be vilified and ostracised, but teachers tend to forgive and forget. We're too nice. Too genteel.

Militant? Never. Too many of us have read and understood The Crucible. We're the "well-reads" under the bed and it's anything for a quiet life. The harsh reality is that our morale is now so low that we will half-heartedly go along with almost anything.

Sadly, this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in our present Higher Still predicament. Teachers have become too flexible. So adept are we at making bricks without straw that it is now expected of us as a matter of course, or should I say course development.

Nothing comes as a shock to teachers who have experienced finding the word "module" on their timetable, a three-page descriptor in their hand and the advice to "get on with it". Or to those involved with the daily delivery of 5-14, especially environmental studies where teachers struggle valiantly with a Blue Peter sticky-backed plastic approach to primary science. Any remote possibility of standardisation, let alone "continuity, coherence and progression", is further hindered by a general lack of meaningful liaison between primary and secondary in this as well as other areas of the 5-14 curriculum.

There is also a failure to arrange regular or sustained in-service on Higher Still. Courses tend to be a principal teacher-only affair to be "reported back". Those left holding the fort receive the double whammy of missing out on the in-service and picking up the "please takes".

Against this backdrop, the recent decree that pupil exclusion rates have to be cut by 20 per cent with, as yet, no additional resources or effective strategies comes as no surprise. Just one more "challenge" to be "managed".

Workload and stress levels have increased significantly over the years due to our new, morale-sapping roles as "fleshers-out", "cascaders" and "internal assessors". To those in the public domain who have a clue or even care about Higher Still, the broadly stated aims seem unobjectionable and pound;23 million sounds like a lot of money. The stark reality is poor quality and infrequent in-service, non-existent course materials and pound;750 a head.

This Government, like its predecessor, does not seem to have learnt the lessons of Standard grade and 5-14 and continues to repeat the errors of over-optimistic time scales, inadequate training programmes and assessment on the cheap. If we are really looking for ways of saving money and reducing the frequency of examinations why do we retain expensive national examinations at the end of S4 when the trend is for most pupils to stay on into S5? Can we not have exams only for those who wish to exit at the end of S4? The considerable money saved could be diverted to properly resourcing Higher Still.

In the real world we will find, if we are brutally honest, that the vast majority of parents and pupils are blissfully ignorant of the ramifications of Higher Still but they will be tacitly aware that its currency will ultimately be determined by the attitudes of employers and higher education.

This is a sobering thought given that many employers have yet to get to grips with the "intricacies" of Standard grades and those that do understand tend to favour grades 1-3 only. Higher Still - Opportunity for All? Career opportunities for some.

Andrew Gallacher is a principal teacher of guidance in Glasgow. He also teaches physics.

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