Spare us these illiterate Labour policies

25th April 2003 at 01:00
EXCELLENT news, you might think, to hear of the Labour Party's election promise to cut numbers in S1 and S2 English and maths classes. But, wait a minute, don't words such as stable door and bolted rush to mind?

I had resolved not to write again about literacy. Vehemently determined to hold to that resolution I might be, but never before has literacy been so talked about, argued over and flagellated by the political pundits, desperate to accrue votes on May 1. I'd thought more words, were the last things needed on the illiterate Scottish nation but I now disagree so radically with Labour's plans that I'm spawning yet more column inches.

What hacks me off is not any fundamental disagreement with either the statistical or anecdotal evidence of illiteracy - both are compelling - but the fact that little meaningful action is taken at government level to counteract the epidemic. This new plan - to cut class sizes in English - is yet more evidence of moths rather than ideas in the brains of aspiring policy-makers.

By S1, it's just too late. By then pupils have experienced seven or eight years of schooling during which they should have learnt to read. Hold that thought! Don't presume. Too many pupils come into secondary school virtually unable to read. It can now be difficult to find more than a handful of pupils in any first-year class who can confidently read aloud.

When I was a young teacher of English I taught "210" which, in that particular streaming system, was the bottom class in second year with nine classes ahead of them in terms of ability. Being enthusiastic and naive, I was determined that my class would outperform the classes above them. By sheer effort of will we collectively triumphed. In the common exam - sat by the bottom five classes - my class surpassed the other four classes. They could now write in sentences and they understood the concept of paragraphing. I wished them well when they moved on to new teachers.

Imagine my despair when, several months later as I was marking the third-year common exam, I discovered that my pupils had once again sunk to the bottom of the heap. The lesson? Resources must be aimed at primary schools. English already commands a goodly share of the secondary school timetable in S1-S2. To what purpose? The 5-14 programme is ill thought out and the brightest pupils sup too deeply at the well of mediocrity and the poorest scarcely advance at all.

What follows in Standard grade English is worse. The Foundation reading paper, for instance, can be tackled by a six-year-old child. The actual exam at the end of a two-year course doesn't even test knowledge of literature. Yes, the folio - five pieces of work from the two-year course - includes literature but rather diminishes it by terming it reading. Perhaps most damning of all is that a pupil can be sitting pretty with a Credit grade one in English and they become painfully aware that their vocabulary is impoverished, their sentence structure is pedestrian (only they wouldn't know what that means) and they are now faced with the fact that the gap between Standard grade English and Higher is proportionate to the divide between the sheep and the goats in Christ's parable of the damned - only they wouldn't get that either.

Lost on two counts - wouldn't know the biblical content and Standard grade English doesn't cater for allusions.

When I mentioned all of this to a Labour politician he responded - I use the term loosely - with a witlessly incapable look. When pressed with the you-know-I'm-right approach, he stared blankly. I'm now beginning to wonder if our politicians are having Botox injections - it would explain a lot.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, psychology and philosophy at Forres Academy.

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