Let's aim higher still;Opinion

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Esther Read bemoans her daughter's eight-month dash towards those all-important exams

Education it ain't. It's hard to avoid that conclusion as my daughter nears the end of her Higher year - though "year" is a bit of a misnomer.

In truth, it has been an eight-month dash through a course which teachers insist on describing as a huge jump from Standard grade. It seems incredible that the results of this marathon - taken at a pace more appropriate to a sprint - should be the basis for deciding our children's future.

As reported by those of my daughter's sixth-year friends who survived the experience, the learning was particularly truncated in those subjects which might be defined as "skill-based" rather than information-based. The sciences, one told me, offered some opportunity to continue building the knowledge base.

The English course, on the other hand, she described as being "like eight months of exam practice". She recognised the necessity of this in a subject where skill in presenting the material is as important as the grasp of the material itself but, as she pointed out, "It's not exactly the way to develop a love of literature".

So will the somewhat ambiguously titled Higher Still do anything to redress the balance? Since my son will be subjected to its rigours, I fervently hope so.

I don't know a family with a child my daughter's age who can say, hand on heart, that overall the Higher year has been a rewarding experience. This bothers me. League tables notwithstanding, I can't shrug off the feeling that schools should, first and foremost, be about fostering enthusiasm for learning.

This thought was reinforced as I reread the Seventies bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was stopped in my tracks by one chapter - the one where the author, Robert Pirsig, describes his experience as a teacher in a skill-based subject, rhetoric. In an attempt to assist his students in discovering for themselves where true quality lay, Pirsig decided not to grade his students' work.

First reactions were overwhelmingly negative. After all, what else did they come to school for? The best students were the most resentful, but carried on working from force of habit. The B and C grade students missed some of the early assignments altogether and then turned in poor work. The rest didn't even bother to turn up.

A month or so later, however, things looked very different. The A students began to get nervous, turned in superb work and stayed around to discuss it in an effort to find out how they had done. The B and C students saw what was happening and began to try to compete with the As, while the lower grades began turning up just to see what was going on.

By the point in the year when most classes would be into the dreaded "revision" with everyone fairly sure where they would be placed at the end of the day, the class had really begun to relish the subject for its own sake and felt confident enough to assess themselves - all apart from the Ds and Es who sat in internal panic.

A success story then? Not altogether. One of the unexpected outcomes of the experiment was the way in which it obliged Pirsig to question the value of what he was doing. If the students could manage without his "grading", did they really need his teaching at all?

More than that, could it be that grades sometimes covered up rather than revealed a failure to teach? The fact that some people "passed" and some people "failed" created the impression that something of value had taken place in the classroom but was that necessarily the case?

It is a question I would like the Secretary of State to consider in the light of his decision to move the finishing line so far as the exam targets for "disadvantaged" schools is concerned. Cranking up performance scores on a course which may be of doubtful value doesn't do much to improve the value of education.

While I hope that Higher Still may provide my son with a far more enriching experience, I remain concerned at the way in which the education policy of this Government, like that of its predecessor, appears to be driven purely by results rather than by consideration of the true ends of education and the means by which these might be achieved.

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