School Diary - Amazing what a vowel and consonant can do

15th May 2009 at 01:00
The week that was.


With senior students on exam leave, I had some spare time to update my blog.

I've had several responses to the thread I started on the experiences and outcomes in A Curriculum for Excellence. Sadly, few of them are repeatable; the general tone is illustrated by "Spudulike" (a frequent correspondent in Blogosphere), who commented on my slightly tepid support for certain new curricular elements. "You've got to be joking," he responded, "if you think this is a step in the right direction for Scottish education. It's a giant leap backwards into the primordial morass of unknowing that existed before John Knox set up the world's first learning establishments!

"Everybody supposedly wandering around keen to learn things for themselves - and nobody able to tell them what's important to know and what's not; and nothing and nobody to assess how much they've learnt or how well they've learnt it; and everyone being confident individuals about how little it matters that they don't know anything. I say bring back annual exams from first year onwards - and stream them regularly on the basis of termly tests."

Somehow I get the feeling that Spudulike is a maths teacher.


Madeleine Nichol, our recently-appointed faculty head from a modern languages background, is raising hackles within the English department. She wants to raise attainment levels, which she claims "have lagged behind expectation at this school for too many years."

It was hardly the best means of endearing herself to her new staff, many of whom cling to the age-old adage concerning the impossibility of constructing silk purses from sows' ears.

"And as well as the appalling raw material we have to work with," protested Patricia Harrison at our departmental meeting, "we're completely under-resourced since the council started spending money on traffic lights and road repairs instead of education. And also - from the look of your requisition - since the bulk of our faculty budget seems to be going on resources for introducing Spanish at S1!"

Mrs Nichol coloured slightly, explained brusquely that the "Spanish spend was using seedcorn money" and went on to criticise our pedagogical approach to Paper 2 of the Higher: "I spoke to a few candidates at private study yesterday who haven't learnt a single model essay for the literature element of Friday's exam."

"But they're not supposed to learn model essays!" we protested.

"Nonsense," she retorted. "It's essential to memorise their essays for Higher French and German, and to my mind it would do them a world of good in Higher English as well!"

We were collectively lost for words. I'm not sure that this is the kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation that was envisaged when we started the faculty system.


Our state-of-the art building benefits from many advanced technological features, especially those designed to conserve energy.

Alas, however, today witnessed the downside of such innovation, when the classroom hosting the Standard grade economics (Foundation) exam was plunged into darkness, owing to the lack of discernible movement after a 20-minute period, while the candidates scribed their answers.

"It was all rather alarming," explained Reverend McKay as he enjoyed a post-invigilation cup of tea in the staffroom. "I'd been sitting at the front watching them, when suddenly every light went out. It took me a while to cotton on, but once I realised what the problem was - aided by one girl's suggestion that I "jump up an waggle yer airms, sur" - I soon got it sorted.

"And the accompanying hilarity at least had the benefit of awakening another of the girls who'd apparently fallen asleep."

"You what?" I queried. "Who?"

Reverend McKay pondered in recollection: "A small and overweight young lady with an aggressive expression," he described her.

"Could be any of them," shrugged Davie McManus.

"With a tattoo on her forearm," the minister elaborated.

"Kimberley McKinley," we chorused.

"So Kimberley dropped off?" muttered Davie. "In a way, it fits in with new CfE models of learning. It's about developing teaching strategies suited to the pupil's learning style. In my opinion, falling asleep during an exam suits Kimberley's learning style precisely!"


Patricia Harrison is thinking of launching a grievance procedure against Mrs Nichol. "Do you know what she showed me?" she confided at lunchtime. "A grid that she's started to compile for the last six years of Higher English past papers: it summarises what novels could have been used to answer the prose questions over that period, whereby she's hoping to demonstrate what novels we should consequently be teaching next year."


Madeleine Nichol is triumphant. She entered the English base this afternoon, clutching Paper 2, and proclaimed vindication for her past paper analysis. "I predicted it," she crowed, "and I was right. Every year for the past six years there's been one novel that they could have used in a prepared answer every year. And it's come up again today."

We raised our eyebrows, but refused to ask the question she was longing for. She answered it anyway. "It's Lord of the Flies!" she revealed. "If they'd all practised with that novel, they'd all have been ready, and our pass rate would have gone up. Which is why I'm going to buy another four sets of it."

There was a loud groan. I don't mind, as I've taught the novel for the last 25 years, but others are less sanguine. Patricia was furious, and claimed (after Madeleine had left), that she was "a useless fac-head!"

"What did you call her?" I frowned.

"Fac-head. Short for faculty head."

"Ah," I said, relieved. "I thought you called her a . ".

"Well, fac-head is what I said - though maybe you're right. A change of vowel and an extra consonant might provide a more accurate description . ".

Troubled times ahead, I feel.

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