Jurassic English S grade

26th March 2004 at 00:00
So, the experiment allowing pupils to sit Standard grade in S3 could go nationwide (TESS, March 12). The justification is that this will allow pupils greater flexibility in S4: some pupils can then take up vocational courses and the more academic others will have two years in which to prepare for Highers.

But the problem with Standard grade is not its timing but its relevance. It was introduced in the 1980s, trumpets heralding it as the single greatest breakthrough in English.

We were told not to worry about what seemed to be highly complex assessments and procedures because this was the opportunity for us all to produce and to provide the most wonderfully stimulating courses for all pupils, irrespective of ability.

But this solution created its own problems, part of which stemmed from the set-up in the then Scottish Examination Board. Standard grade was always treated as a separate subject from Higher grade - as separate from Higher English as Standard grade biology. There was no liaison with the Higher team, no consultation, no sharing of philosophy.

The problem with Standard grade is twofold: the folio and external examination themselves, and the two-year course that both require. Since it is almost axiomatic that any examination drives the syllabus (cynical but accurate), the Standard grade folio requirements of only three "reading" pieces ensures that the literature input throughout S3 and S4 can be reduced to a minimum.

As a preparation for the Higher which, with its various levels, is now supposed to cater for a wider ability range of the cohort, Standard grade is entirely inadequate. Shunting Standard grade down to S3 will not solve this latter problem, simply because the skills of textual analysis and evaluation are at no point tested by Standard grade. To think otherwise is naive.

Not only are there problems with the courses encouraged by Standard grade, but the examination itself is intellectually inappropriate. One of the main reasons for introducing the folio (sadly and wrongly now dropped) at Higher in the late 1980s was the feeling shared by many that it was unfair to ask 17-year-olds - anyone, for that matter - to produce a piece of writing within an hour under examination conditions.

Fifteen years later, we still make those demands at Standard grade. Where is the consistency, the intellectual honesty? To argue that it is a test to confirm the authenticity of candidates' folio pieces is pure chicanery.

Given that today the 5-14 programme articulates with Higher in a way that puts Standard grade to shame, something drastic has to be done. The 5-14 curriculum encourages textual analysis, encourages evaluation, encourages deriving meaning from context - all skills so essential to Higher.

But between the two we have this anachronistic mammoth which may once have had its place in Jurassic Comprehensive but which now lumbers stertorously and obsoletely in the classrooms of the 21st century.

What we desperately need now is a coherent, sequential English course from S1-S5, and that means extending and developing 5-14 into S3 and improving the Higher to give it greater respectability, currency and credibility. The Higher itself needs externally to assess writing, the personal study and, of course, textual analysis. That is the settled will of many Scottish teachers.

David Cockburn Water Wynd Pittenweem

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