Rant that got itself in a spin

5th September 2003 at 01:00
It really is disappointing when a teacher of philosophy, among other things, has a very public rant about falling standards without any attempt to provide evidence, demonstrate logical argument or display intellectual rigour.

In her TES Scotland column last week, Marj Adams refers to the views of the head of English at Aberdeen University who concluded that the syntactical and grammatical demands of the 1983 Higher English paper were greater than those of the 2003 paper.

Well, I too was asked, by the Sunday Times, to analyse the 1983 and 2003 papers and the conclusion I came to was that the two papers were different.

Aspects of the 1983 paper were more demanding (the overall length of the paper; the fact that there was a writing paper; the report question), while there were aspects of the 2003 paper which were more demanding (the length of the close reading passages; the requirement to compare the two passages; the more specific nature of the reading questions).

Strangely enough, the Sunday Times used nothing of two A4 pages of analysis since my conclusions did not fit with their "falling standards" agenda.

Over the years there have been a number of studies which attempted to show that exams are getting easier, but none of them has managed to come up with any evidence to support that thesis. Indeed, all the evidence, from the Centre for Educational Sociology in the 1970s and 1980s, and from Professor Lindsay Paterson in the 1990s and in his most recent book Scottish Education in the 20th Century, suggests that levels of attainment have risen steadily since the introduction of comprehensive education in Scotland.

On a personal note, my son Chris has just had a very successful year, achieving the highest grades in his five subjects, including English. He was taught by talented, dedicated and conscientious teachers. The demands placed on him to respond critically to literature and to write creatively far outstrip those placed on me in the 1960s in a senior secondary in Glasgow.

I think Marj and I would agree that the present Higher English exam does not serve pupils or teachers very well. However, I remain to be convinced that standards are falling as a consequence.

Brian Boyd University of Strathclyde

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