Platform: Liddell must step in to save Higher Still

16th October 1998 at 01:00
The Higher Still debacle is the result of a classic breakdown in communication. It illustrates both the results of refusing to listen to the people who do the job on the ground (or in this case at the chalkface) and the democratic deficit the Scottish parliament is supposed to address.

When Helen Liddell was named as Education Minister, I was delighted - full of hope that we were getting the one minister who would not be governed purely by civil service advice but would take her political responsibilities in both hands. As an optimist, I still hope that is what will happen.

All the threads of the Higher Still programme lead not to the Education Minister, who allegedly makes policy, not to the education authorities, which are responsible for delivering education, not to the Scottish Qualifications Agency, which is charged with administering examinations and assessments, but to Her Majesty's Inspectors. They are the ones in control of education - away from public scrutiny because there is no Scottish-level education committee to call them to account.

Honest and efficient they doubtless are but to whom are they really accountable? In practice, as ministers come and go policies change little, reinforcing the view that the real Government is the unelected permanent civil service.

The roots of the problem with Higher Still, Labour supporters will be pleased to hear, go back to Michael Forsyth's days in the driving seat. While many Higher Still documents were put out for consultation, one absolutely crucial one was not - that on assessment arrangements. Teachers and schools have no ownership of this policy at all. It dropped fully formed out of the blue sky - the usual recipe for disaster.

The assessment framework decreed that "to achieve the award of a course, the student must succeed in the component units and in the course assessment". This innocuous sounding sentence describes a sea change from external assessment supported by internally produced (and sometimes assessed) work at Standard and Higher grades to the double assessment of everything.

The internal assessments must all be passed before any candidate can be awarded the qualification for the course - whether that is Higher physics or Advanced Higher French. There will be no more poor performance at prelim time leading to improved study habits and a satisfactory exam result. Instead, struggling candidates will be hammered with repeated assessment until they either pass or, more likely, turn off completely. This system will lead either to fewer passes at Higher (and other levels), or else to a lowering of standards. Neither outcome is desirable, so why are we being forced towards it?

There is no good reason why the burden of assessment on either teachers or candidates should be any greater under a new system. Instead of addressing this point, HMI set out to prove there was no problem. Since it is glaringly obvious there is a very big problem, they did considerable damage to their reputation for objectivity.

One of the most conciliatory moves Mrs Liddell could make, costing very little, would be to delete the requirement that unit (internal) assessments must all be passed before the course award is granted. The SQA,with all its experience of assessment, would have no difficulty guaranteeing standards - it has only to continue existing arrangements.

That would allow teachers to spend more time teaching, rather than chasing the last student to pass an assessment through every failure, absence, missed appointment and panic attack. It would allow the flame of hope to flicker a little longer in the struggling student. The unit assessments would still be there, but in a supportive, not a punitive role.

Pupils' interests are being sacrificed to political dogma, and when parents realise this the political price demanded will not be paid by HMI.

Higher Still as it stands will hardly be manageable without more staffing. The most straightforward and effective way to ensure extra staffing benefited students would be to reduce maximum class sizes, and to make the maximum even lower for two-stage composites. (Composites with more than two stages do not make any sense educationally.) Mrs Liddell will be relieved, however, to hear that the problem with Higher Still is not primarily one of money. It is about readiness for this change and it is about listening to teachers rather than trying to steamroller them.

Many valid concerns, particularly at Higher level, have not been adequately addressed. Some of these are educational, and can often be summed up as:

"This isn't as good as the present Higher, so why are we doing it?" Teachers care very much about their subject, and many do not like the way it has been hacked about and the effect this will have on students.

Much of the material planned for Higher Still is not yet in schools. This is surprising considering that, according to the original timetable, we should be using it already. Teachers are worried by the workload implications as a massive task of course writing looms before them. There is no sign that course planners have been working to encourage publishers to produce what is needed in the year before the introduction of a new course. The materials are not even going to be ready for when the new courses are scheduled to start in schools next May, so the case for a postponement is strong at this point.

The union ballots for a boycott give Mrs Liddell an opportunity to regain control, in the interests of young people as much as of schools and colleges. This is her chance to avert chaos.

Graham Dane is a member of the executive council of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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