National courses in S2 are not the way to tackle disaffection in the early years of secondary, says Peter Wright.
For years now, there has been virtual unanimity that a problem exists in S1 and S2. Have secondary schools been lax in tackling the problem? Herculean efforts have been made to ease the transition from P7 to S1. It is now common for secondary staff to pay regular visits to associated primary schools, both to meet pupils and to facilitate forward planning with their primary colleagues. And it is also not uncommon for secondary-based subject specialists to spend time in primaries supporting the primary curriculum.
In S1 and S2, secondary schools have responded by introducing rotations in some groups of subjects and setting by ability in others. IQ testing has made something of a comeback in the form of NFER Nelson or similar assessments in P7 and S1. Maths and English specialists add to this by administering national tests and using the results for pupil target-setting and profiling.
It would appear that all this is not enough. Now that the age and stage regulations have been consigned to the dustbin of history, the charge to introduce national courses in S2 is on, with Keith Grammar leading the way.
Many are following in its wake. Significant numbers of P7 pupils entering secondary school this August will begin Standard grade or Higher Still courses next May.
In a tactic reminiscent of Stalin and the kulaks, the problem of S1 and S2 will be solved at a stroke by liquidating S1-S2 as a secondary school stage. S1 will be reduced to a two-term rump between formal admission in August and subject choice for S2 some time towards the end of term two.
Will it work? The most able cohorts may benefit from longer lead-in times into national courses, especially at Higher. This will not be without cost, however. If experience is any judge, pupils who have made their choices will then lose interest in any subject they do not intend to study in S2.
They will then begin their new subjects with a wave of enthusiasm which many will sustain. But, just as in the previous regime, many will lose this motivation by the end of S2. As in times past, the less able and less motivated pupil will be particularly prone to this disenchantment. Now they will be a year younger and a year less mature. Boys, less mature than their female peers, may fall by the wayside as they face and fail formal assessments designed for much older pupils. There is certain to be an increased demand for learning support services.
Core subjects may be able to meet the challenge by appropriate setting and judicious use of pupil support. Will non-core subjects enjoy the same flexibility? Again, past experience suggests they will not. Multi-level teaching will be the order of the day, with all its attendant difficulties.
A solution may present itself in the form of a curriculum based on stage rather than age, as older pupils are mixed with younger pupils of similar attainment. As a solution, it may even prove to be educationally beneficial. It will certainly be cheaper in terms of staffing. And easier. To paraphrase David Garrick: "Timetabling is easy.
Creativity is difficult."
And therein lies the problem. Secondary teachers have long recognised that S2 in particular is broke and needs to be fixed. Many solutions have been attempted, but the one which has not been attempted so far is the simplest of all. If pupils are demotivated in S2, it is because they are bored. They are bored of setting and bored of tests. They are bored of targets and bored with worksheets. They are bored of the three-part lesson which they encounter in every classroom.
The only time pupils get out to do anything different tends to be during end-of-term activity days or as part of positive behaviour reward schemes.
Either way, the message is reinforced that school is not to be associated in any way with the simple joy and infectious fun of young people being together.
The key is an effective curriculum, along with varied teaching and learning. Let's reintroduce outdoor education in all schools and get groups of kids out on the hills and on the seashore. Let's make sure that every pupil can access drama and media studies, both discretely and across the secondary curriculum. Let's abandon the curriculum altogether on a handful of days a year and experiment with one-off cross-curricular tasks which allow pupils to take part in active learning, rather than following the predictable landscape of the teacher-centred "single transferable lesson".
Some of these might be based on national targets such as promoting healthy schools or citizenship, rather than academic achievement. Surely any day is well spent which allows our young people to experience alternatives to the life-threatening lifestyles so many of them unthinkingly follow?
It's simple. The remedy to the S1-S2 problem is variety and creativity, and not more of the same. Let's put the fun back into learning.
Peter Wright is a secondary teacher in West Lothian.