Learning matters, not accountability

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Ministers still have much to do to resolve the problems of assessment, says Sheila Hughes.

I am impressed with the new "Curriculum for Excellence". I like the skeleton, but I wonder what it will look like with flesh. I like the idea of decluttering the primary curriculum, but I have been trying to do that to my desk without much success either. I look forward to hearing how this is to be done. I like the idea of a simple and effective assessment system but I worry about the layers and layers of assessment teachers will still have to deal with. The Scottish Executive Education Department has said that it will discontinue collecting national test data but will the education authorities make national testing optional?

On top of that, individual learning plans have been added. I used to know them as records of achievement. Whatever happened to them? It is interesting that the SEED refers to individual planning rather than individual plans. The addition of "ning" suggests that there will be no additional workload. Aye right, I hear you say! Maybe primary teachers will be able to use them more imaginatively than we secondary teachers did but I am not holding my breath.

A Scottish Survey of Achievement is to replace the Assessment of Achievement Programme. However, all of this still focuses on assessment for accountability rather than assessment for learning. If the thrust for formative assessment is to be taken seriously, why have national tests been beefed up with the addition of writer's craft tests? Doing away with these online assessments would have removed a layer of summative assessment at a stroke.

I really like the section on the purposes of the curriculum 3-18. It looks like meat and drink to English teachers. But who is going to do the fleshing out? What model of English teaching will they subscribe to - one suited to 2050 or the existing one which would even have been out of date in 1950?

First, back to basics is not an option. It is the basics for the future that need to be defined. English teaching in Scottish secondary schools has been based on literature since the early 1970s. A typical writing task while reading Across the Barricades would be to write the newspaper report of the blowing up of Mrs McConkey's shop. If a character posts a letter, let's write the letter. If English teachers are still going to use literature as a stepping stone for reading and writing, talking and listening, can some old favourites please be replaced by new ones which have more connection with children's lives in the 21st century?

Can The Silver Sword be replaced by Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth? How about Benjamin Zephaniah's Face instead of A Pair of Jesus-boots, and Garth Nix's Lirael rather than Ghost of Thomas Kempe? How about Bend It Like Beckham rather than Game of Soldiers? Maybe For Heidi with Blue Hair would go down better than The Highwayman.

Mindless interpretation exercises or "hunt the answer the teacher is looking for" could be replaced with a problem-solving approach which taught pupils strategies for deconstructing any written text including newspaper articles, websites, politician's speeches, e-mails and text messages. Mind you, practising reading tests might show that I had increased attainment in my national tests. But sod it, I'd rather educate them.

What about writing? Writer's craft, otherwise known as grammar, needs to be explicitly taught at all levels, not so that pupils learn that splitting an infinitive is wrong, but to share a common language for exploring how texts work. Personally, I would like to show them that language is infinitely malleable and that guddling about in language is fun. In fact, they might learn that it is sometimes very effective to split an infinitive.

I would stop having them practise writing and really teach them how to write a wide range of genres by looking at how they, and others, craft writing. Pupils need writing coaches, not writing judges. I would replace critical evaluations of literature with critical evaluations of everything and anything. And there must be other interesting issues to discuss in addition to fox-hunting. I would like to show them how to write essays with attitude. I would like to help them flex the writing muscle and punch society in the face with it.

I would abandon the current anaemic, watered-down, assessment-led curriculum that poses as Higher Still English. In a world where young adults have access to information on the computer in their bedroom, I would try to help them to read, and critically evaluate that information.

I want to show the disillusioned Intermediate 2s how some writers, especially politicians and the media, are trying to influence the way they think, rather than give them another assessment bank item on yet another topic of little or no interest to them. The fact that writing is not assessed beyond internal grading of pass or fail may give teachers a golden opportunity to use that space to really develop their writing skills. But with pressure to increase pass rates . . . I think maybe not.

Personally, I will not be sad to see Standard grade and endless redrafting go, but I will be sad to see Higher Still come down into fourth year so that pupils can spend even more time preparing for assessment bank items, getting assessment bank items back and going on to the next assessment bank item as if practising for the exam was the only thing that mattered.

I would cut down on summative assessment. I would reinstate talk, critical listening and the old Higher report: the one pupils did before it grew totally out of control in revised Higher. I would introduce critical literacy where pupils learnt that language can empower and give them a voice to help change society. Where "Whit ur we dain this fur?" is replaced with "How dae ye mean, miss?"

Education Minister Peter Peacock wants a revolution. First he is going to have to trust teachers and give them the space to teach what really matters and to remember that what is important in our schools is not always measurable.

Sheila Hughes is senior English lecturer in the education faculty at Strathclyde University.

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