Leadership - Are S1 and S2 really that bad?

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Director says they are not a waste of time - a lot of good, solid subject teaching takes place

The first two years in secondary are not the demotivating waste of time for pupils that popular opinion believes them to be. Instead, they offer "a rich educational experience", a leadership conference in Seamill, North Ayrshire heard last week.

The "refresh" that youngsters got when they arrived in secondary, by moving away from single classes and into distinct subjects, was a positive thing, argued Ian Fraser, corporate director of education and social care in Inverclyde.

Their social circle widened at a time they were able to cope with it and secondary specialists were able to deliver subjects to a much higher level than in primary, he said.

The dip in attainment in maths and language in early secondary was a concern, he conceded, but youngsters were not "hothouse flowers"; there would be times, as they matured, when they learned better than others.

Mr Fraser also argued that although maths and language appeared to suffer in early secondary, pupils achieved well in new subjects like science, technical and home economics. Perhaps these acted as a temporary distraction from traditional subjects, but attainment continued to rise year-on-year. Could S1 and S2 really be so bad? he asked.

"I've got no doubt that a lot of really good, solid subject teaching takes place in S1 and S2," Mr Fraser told the gathering of education managers and headteachers.

He acknowledged, however, that he was a lone voice and that the argument to retain S1-2 in their current form was essentially lost. He was puzzled by plans for a general curriculum from S1-3.

Subject choice could be introduced as early as primary school, he argued. "In P7, youngsters know if they are musical wastelands or if they want to develop their interest in art."

Mr Fraser pointed out that Inverclyde fared better than comparator authorities, including North Ayrshire, when it came to attainment.

That authority could improve attainment by making its biggest problem - poverty - its priority, he said. His action list included, among other things:

  • high expectations and demands - not taking poverty as a reason for not doing things but challenging pupils to overcome it;
  • early identification: "how much dyslexia is picked up at nursery, given that 80 per cent of prisoners at Barlinnie have dyslexia?"
  • targeting: once you have identified those who need more help, work out what to do;
  • attendance: time on task - supported study over lunchtime and so on;
  • work at transitions, not just nursery into primary and primary into secondary, but secondary into work;
  • motivation: bring role models into the school;
  • course choice: bad boys are not bad in all subjects - it is better to exclude them from subjects than from school;
  • teachers: with the right teachers, "good things will happen".
    • All local authorities, however, would have their work cut out for them, continued Mr Fraser. They had not faced such "contraction in resources" for years.

      "The Government, in my view, is not giving local authorities the investment needed to push on with the educational developments," he said. "They say they are giving them more money, but that is being taken up with increases in inflation and wages."

      North Ayrshire was also feeling the squeeze, acknowledged its director of education, Carol Kirk. For the first time, those attending the two-day conference were having to pay for their own evening meal and accommodation.

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