Scrap this miserable English course and put pupils out of their misery

13th April 2001 at 01:00
NOW that we have been through the genuine Higher Still experience, we can speak with authority on its merits. All my department would agree that it has been, for students and staff, a highly stressful experience.

Of course, a few organised students take it in their stride, but we live in a time when students look far too much for their teachers to tell them what to do, or what to write, to offer advice, to extend deadlines, ultimately to let them pass with work of debatable quality. Because English is the kind of subject where there cannot be hard and fast pass levels, there will always be this conflict. In short, external examinations, despite their faults, should decide the level of performance of our students.

There are many elements of assessment that may have arisen out of a well intentioned philosophy, but cause deep concern and dissatisfaction among teachers. Let me explain the most glaring.

1. Unit 1 - Language - is unfair. Students have to read (Interpretation) and write (in any style). These are two quite different skills, yet they are lumped together. This means that the internal assessor - the teacher - cannot give credit for a pass in one skill. A second, serious fault, is that formal writing is only tested in the examination through the essay on literature, which is hardly a useful writing skill much valued by employers.

Where is the report or other formal test? Answer - in the folio sent to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, where students may have redrafted to achieve, eventually, a Higher level. There must be a writing test externally assessed.

2. Unit 2 - Literature - is unfair. Students have to pass two critical essays. Fine. But one has to be on a Scottish text. Why? I have one student who has so far passed three essays (on English texts - sorry about the racism) but failed the Scottish choice. She will have to try again. This is ludicrous. If you want to promote Scottish literature, you don't do it by press-ganging it into assessment.

In a practice assessment on textual analysis, I used a poem by a man born in Scotland, but who has been elsewhere for the last 60 years of his life.

As in Craig Brown's squad, he qualifies. Te fact that there had to be debate over whether Macbeth is a Scottish text (it wasn't but now is!) shows how ludicrous this rule is.

3. Unit 3 - Listening. Because of the assessment of literature, I have had to sacrifice my long-held view that no sensible person should watch Kilroy.

This type of programme cannot be avoided if one assesses listening. The talk part of Unit 3 is undeniably useful. Talk is certainly something that youngsters need to be able to do. But the SQA must accept that it can never be assessed consistently across a group of teachers.

4. Unit 4 - The Specialist Study. This is the monster of Higher Still. In the past, Higher students could handle it - mostly - because they were, well, higher students. To shoehorn Intermediate 1 students into this skill asks a great deal of then, and of their teachers.

I will be sending a set of specialist studies which represents for my Int.

1 students a truly fantastic effort. They are not really very good. I don't know if they will pass but I hope their efforts are recognised. Why not, instead of this terrible waste of time, encourage students to read several novels on which assessment will be minimal? This is much more useful than a sterile written exercise, and, who knows, if they do return to sixth year, maybe they will have a better choice of text for their Intermediate 2 specialist study. And if not, at least they have read and enjoyed some texts.

I have been trying to start a debate about what we need to do to serve the young people who are returning to school in search of worthwhile education.

The English course as prescribed by the Higher Still Development Unit has failed miserably. They will not be keen to admit that, of course, and further, because it is almost impossible to find any English teacher as part of that group, do not even understand what English teaching is all about.

It is high time English practitioners were put in charge of a complete revision of Higher Still English. That is the recipe for a commonsense revolution which will remove this unbearable stress.

Eddie Poyner

Principal teacher of English

Carluke High School

South Lanarkshire

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