Let's not overlook the middle years

16th June 2000 at 01:00
S1S2 should not be left to last in the timetabling equation but instead given due weight, argues Stan Gillespie

As the flurry of timetabling for next session reaches its customary climax, I make a heartfelt plea for dynamic forward thinking. Go back to the drawing board and take another look at what was created for S1S2 in the "left over" provision in this year's schedule. Now allow me to pose a few philosophical questions.

Have we produced a flawed system by failing to address the S1S2 building block? Have we overspent valuable time and resources in efforts to ensure curricular and skills pathways in S3 and beyond without filling the gaps - chasms even - in the fundamental progression years?

Is some form of middle school approach the crucial missing link for 5-18 provision in Scotland? Would it help to provide positive evaluation of age and stage recommendations, paving the way for improved achievement at all ability levels? Would it improve morale and pupil discipline?

The key was provided by the HMI report on Achieving Success in S1S2 (1998), and at last some forward-looking education authorities are beavering away at its challenging recommendations. This document - in partnership with Designing for Progression from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (1999) - could lay the foundation for radical decisions and the resuscitation of middle school potential.

The current settling-in period of the Higher Still programme is an appropriate time to look at new opportunities for providing quality education. Changes in the school population and reorganisation of staff and resources are key issues to partnership with the community and our "clients".

Thirty years ago I was part of a pioneering team which experimented with three-tier schools in Grangemouth, with a focus on middle schools. Regrettably, the venture and a substantial 10-14 report by the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum (1986) were ditched for varous reasons but particularly, one suspects, a lack of financial commitment. Now, with the search for ways to improve morale and discipline, the concept is worth reconsidering.

A "middle school" does not need to be entrenched in the P6-S2 range, as in the Grangemouth experiment. It might, for example, be possible to consider P7-S3 separately, or as an integral part of the secondary school. This could be viewed against the debates on making effective use of school premises for a longer day, different time allocations in the school day and four-term years. A crucial factor, however, is the approach to timetabling S1 and S2.

In my theoretical school I have been pursuing these theories and, controversially, given timetabling priority to the first two secondary years. Due account has been taken of subject blocking, reduction in teacher contacts, rota provision in practical subject combinations and so on. The result has been a stable S1S2 curriculum strategy which, subject to staffing and accommodation, could cope with up to an eight-form entry.

Other benefits are that it would encourage more targeted use of support for learning staff, provide nine to 10-week blocks of time for task completion and thus familiarise S1S2 pupils with unit provision in the Higher Still programme. It would also release workable course choices at S3 and S5, stimulate age and stage development and allocate time and resources for information and communications technology study in S5 to supplement individual Higher Still provision (in the region of 40 hours in a session).

The timetabling approach has been devised as an alternative for any school struggling for fluency and progression in the curriculum. In the interests of future generations, a little reorganisation may be cost effective and help the "middle school" to rise from the ashes of exclusion.

Stan Gillespie is a former assistant rector at Alva Academy, Clackmannanshire, email: fsag@lineone.net

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