Moderation will serve pupils best

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Age and stage regulations are the focus of this week's contribution to our summer debates

The ancient Greek motto of "moderation in all things" is still relevant today and apposite in terms of age and stage relaxation and curriculum flexibility. Wholesale change to Standard grade of Intermediate courses in S2 and earlier option choices is not necessarily appropriate for all children and requires a great deal of careful preparation by teachers and school managers.

It certainly cannot happen quickly without damaging the prospects of at least one cohort of pupils - as well as placing enormous pressure on teachers, damaging staffroom morale and increasing disillusionment.

These courses were not designed originally for these stages, rather they were intended to build on knowledge and understanding accrued and skills developed during previous 5-14 courses. This does not mean to say that individual children would not benefit from such courses, but certainly not all pupils would.

Fundamentally, the issue is about knowing each child really well - not just strengths and weaknesses but the best way for that child to learn, the support and help needed to achieve mastery of a skill, for example.

That knowledge is not gained overnight. Everyone develops at a different rate and a multitude of external factors affect teaching and learning: home circumstance, socialisation, health issues and levels of maturity, to name but a few. Of course, a major issue concerns expectations - of the child, the parents and teachers.

This often is a root cause of underachievement and, equally, can create tremendous pressure. At present, schools come under enormous pressure to enter pupils for exams at levels beyond their proven capabilities. This pressure may now just be transferred to earlier stages in school.

By the same token, when teachers are given a timetable with classes named as Standard grade or Intermediate, they will have expectations about knowledge levels and capabilities. This may naturally "raise the game" of some pupils, but could leave others floundering.

In a time when the whole direction of teaching and learning focuses on the individual - personalised learning, education support plans, learning styles - we need to be careful about blanket approaches smothering this necessity to concentrate on the individual. Every teacher can tell you how hard that is to achieve - and yet how necessary.

After every lesson a teacher will make a judgment about the success of the lesson in terms of progress made by each pupil. The holy grail of teaching is to achieve each child's potential in terms of educational development.

Two of the main messages in the recent Curriculum for Excellence progress report were that "the whole school has responsibility for developing the four capacities in every child and young person" and that "learning and teaching are at the heart of an effective curriculum".

For many teachers this is stating the obvious; none the less, this represents a welcome return to sound principles. On the one hand, it affords an opportunity to break free from a hidebound situation in terms of targets and courses; on the other, it could be a frightening prospect to cut loose from tried and tested courses and prescripted approaches.

In this situation, is it the best decision now to move over to examinable courses in S1 and S2?

I would submit that courses in S1-S3 will become much more fluid and flexible to accord with individual pupils and their needs. Some schools are already contemplating getting rid of year groups and having an open entry system where pupils are placed in classes according to their aptitude not age. That too could be fraught with difficulties but would, at least, recognise the individuality of each child.

The path to educational glory is paved with good intentions and has a history that is littered with "quick fixes", panaceas and fads. Some things simply do not change: the quality of teaching and learning depends on the relationship between the teacher and the class and, in particular, on the ability of the teacher to make connections with each pupil. Unless systems, management or courses support teaching and learning, they do not work.

A major criticism of schools as institutions is that they are organised for purposes other than the benefit of children. Whether it is targets, option choices or timetabling, they are all seen as administrative impediments to successful teaching and learning. Moving courses and options to earlier stages for all pupils could well be seen in the same light.

The crux of the matter is the intellectual and emotional maturity of each pupil, whether such progression can be achieved for every child or could we be stigmatising some children as failures at an even earlier age?

In the spirit of current educational developments, we need to focus on the individual, recognise all achievements and ensure progression to whatever level the child shows the potential to reach.

Brian Cooklin is headteacher of Stonelaw High in South Lanarkshire and education convener of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

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