Keep it real

17th August 2007 at 01:00

Social subjects need to be taught in an integrated fashion if they are to have any relevance to pupils

PUPILS FIND social subjects increasingly irrelevant and unimportant to their lives the further up school they go, according to the latest survey which charts pupil attainment between P3 and S2.

The Scottish Survey of Achievement into social subjects, literacy and numeracy, and core skills, published today, also finds that performance drops as pupils move from primary into early secondary.

The survey was based on tests administered to 27,000 pupils from 1,300 Scottish schools last year at four stages P3, P5, P7 and S2.

The figures show that last year, a third of S2 pupils were working comfortably at their expected standard (Level E) in subjects such as history, geography and modern studies. Around a quarter were found to have made a "good start", but 39 per cent were floundering at lower levels. None were identified as sailing ahead and able to tackle work aimed at an older age group (Level F).

However, younger pupils fared considerably better. In P3, around 60 per cent were deemed to be hitting their target in social subjects and just under a third were already working at the level expected in P4. By P7, the picture was less positive, but there were still more than 50 per cent working at the expected level (D), with a further quarter off to a "good start".

The survey also examined attainment in literacy and numeracy, its findings mirroring last year's SSA survey, which showed a dip in attainment once pupils moved into secondary.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said fewer pupils reached level E the expected level for S2 because it was "pretty challenging". However, the executive hopes the capping of class sizes in English and maths will have an impact on future attainment, she said.

The report suggests that teachers need to help older pupils see the relevance of what they are studying. It said: "A much lower proportion of S2 pupils (than primary pupils) considered their social subjects topic work to be important, either for helping with other school subjects or in future occupations."

Henry Maitles, head of curricular studies at the University of Strathclyde, said he was not surprised by the finding. Failure to teach social subjects in an integrated fashion at secondary leads to pupil demotivation, argued the former history and modern studies teacher.

"When history, modern studies and geography are taught in isolation, kids don't see the relevance," said Mr Maitles. "At primary, if they are teaching the Holocaust they take a holistic approach. The Holocaust should not be taught as some kind of historical issue, but as an example of genocide which unfortunately continues that's where history and modern studies teachers should be working together."

Mr Maitles was critical of teachers who "jealously guard" their subjects. He suggested that time constraints in secondary made collaboration between different subject teachers difficult. He hoped A Curriculum for Excellence might change this.

Time pressures, said Mr Maitles, could also explain the differences in primary and secondary teaching styles highlighted by the SSA. It found that, while social studies lessons at primary and secondary mainly involved whole-class teaching and pupils writing in their jotters, primary teachers were more likely to allow pupils to work in pairs and groups, to handle objects or artefacts, and make things to do with the topic. Primary teachers were also more likely to embrace formative assessment approaches.

Mr Maitles continued: "Formative assessment enables you to work out which kids need extra support and which need to be pushed. Clearly, if kids feel they can't handle the work or it's too easy for them, that's demotivating."

On a more positive note, the SSA found the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers rated their pupils' behaviour and motivation to learn as very good or good. Core skills such as group working, problem solving and ICT were found to be well developed at all stages.

Next year's SSA results will focus on science, science literacy and core skills.

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