Now our summer days are over;The Sweeney;School Management

20th August 1999 at 01:00
The school holidays seem to get shorter each year. Now I understand what the American comedian George Burns meant when he said: "When you get to my age, you have your breakfast every five minutes."

Returning from my own two weeks in the sun, I was tempted to try out the monthly magazine of Saga, the organisation for the over-50s. The ensuing flood of publicity for stair lifts and bathing aids offered exclusively to those who have reached the half-century did little for the Sweeney morale.

Not everybody had a break from educational matters over the summer. Herald journalists burned the midnight oil to reveal exclusively in July that North Lanarkshire had found a simple and radical solution to lack of pace and motivation in S1 and S2. It would eliminate S2.

The paper's "exclusive" had already been covered by TES Scotland in May. Initial misunderstandings centred on the suspicion that all North Lanarkshire children might be issued with new dates of birth, making them old enough to embark on Standard grade courses at the end of S1. When this misapprehension was corrected, the proposals appeared, like most ingenious inventions, simple, practical, radical and obvious.

There is an inescapable logic in offering Standard grade earlier to those young people who can cope with it, enabling them to proceed earlier to Higher Still courses. It would also breathe life into Advanced Higher, which already risks sharing the fate of the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies as an additional extra for the few who make it to S6.

Remember Professor Howie, the great grandfather of Higher Still. He pointed up the lack of challenge in S1 and S2 as a fundamental weakness of Scottish secondary education, leading to under-achievement in later years. Umpteen conferences have debated the issue, resulting in limited tinkering at school level. The problem remains that many second-year pupils can tackle S2 courses standing on their heads. They only come to life when they are set loose on S3 options at the end of their second year.

Over the summer, proposals emerged south of the border to offer retirement for teachers at age 55, by providing them with actuarially reduced pensions. The detail is not yet clear, but it seems you can retire early by negotiating away some of your pension rights. Unions have wrung their hands and cried caution, but, if the deal is half decent, the actuary is likely to be kept busy.

In July, teachers learned that young people's achievement at Higher grade is related to the number of subjects they sit. The more they attempt, the better they are likely to perform. Teachers tend to be cautious about creating excessive pressure on pupils, although young people themselves do not share their apprehensions. Detailed evidence from Banchory Academy in Aberdeenshire suggests that raising expectations can indeed improve Higher results.

The future of local councils and their role as education authorities came in for further scrutiny during the break. Everybody realises we are now over-governed, a fact vividly demonstrated by the collective national yawn that greeted the European elections. Schools also serve too many masters, and must be rescued from the layers of accountability weighing upon them, and from the relentless deluge of glossy initiatives. Whether the extinction of education authorities is the best way of achieving this is debatable.

The totality of relationships between schools and those who control them needs to be reviewed. Schools in the future must be more diverse, shaped by the communities they serve, and consequently more autonomous. Some functions and services will be provided at local level, with a degree of accountability to national government. To excise one or other of these strata arbitrarily would be unhelpful and simplistic.

The new session in Holy Rood begins on an upbeat note. The best Standard grade results ever are a welcome boost to a hard-working and dedicated staff, which is replenished and revitalised by the arrival of a dozen new recruits. It is intriguing to speculate what schools will be like when our newly qualified staff receive their first copy of the Saga magazine.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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