Social subjects in a changing curriculum

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
History is made by general elections. The political process is the stuff of modern studies in schools. But for teachers of the social subjects, which also include geography, these are difficult times. They complain about lack of curriculum time in the early years of secondary. They compete for pupils in the Standard grade years. Many have been unhappy about the nature of exams, especially at Standard grade.

A fundamental question concerns the compartmentalisation which puts each of the subjects into a separate department comprising, in the main, honours graduates in the specialism under a principal teacher. The creation of the 5-14 programme with its focus on environmental studies and the assumption that the cross-subject nature of that area of the curriculum should embrace the lower secondary, as it has the primary, gives cause for concern to secondary specialists.

They would also be likely casualties if there was more than rhetoric to the suggestion that young secondary pupils should face fewer subjects and teachers. A principal proponent of that argument, Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University's Quality in Education Centre, was roundly attacked at a 5-14 history conference last weekend. Frank Cooney, a social studies lecturer and former schools adviser, said that a slimmed down curriculum was not the answer. The social subjects should be taught in blocks, as they already are in many schools.

That would ensure that young people had a grounding in all three without being confused by the traditional approach of a single period a week. His idea would also combine continued independence of the individual departments and co-operation to ensure a coherent experience for the pupils.

The impetus to setting of pupils by ability in English and maths may prove powerful whatever the fate of the outgoing Government's policy paper,Achievement for All. If schools see merit in differentiating by groups rather than by individual capabilities in a class of 30 (which for many educationists is the creed), politicians are unlikely to interfere. Social subjects teachers may differ in their attitude to setting but they see a threat if the practice is adopted in the two "main" subjects. Other areas might lose status, which is also a danger in national tests confined to English and maths.

Last month we suggested that social subjects teachers would welcome the decision by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to abandon investigations as part of the Standard grade exam. There are indications, however, that the profession is more divided than the SQA concluded from its consultation exercise. Some history teachers think they have been bounced by geographers, who were the least enthusiastic for investigations.The TES Scotland would welcome contributions from teachers in all three social subject areas to the debate.

At a time when there is increasing emphasis on Scottish studies - social as well as linguistic and literary - there are opportunities for social subject departments. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum' s inquiry into the nature and place of Scottish "culture" could affect them all. But, more widely, they are uneasy about their place in the scheme of things.

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