By accelerating the 5-14 curriculum in S1, one school is starting Standard grade a year early to give more time to do Higher, writes Douglas Blane
The dip in children's enthusiasm and attainment in their first two years at secondary school has been blamed on many factors but recent evidence suggests that lack of challenge is key.
It does not have to happen, says Brian Miller, headteacher at Dalziel High in Motherwell, North Lanarkshire. He has introduced a curriculum to fast-track pupils through to Standard grades.
"Fast tracking isn't the best description," he says, "because there is no selection. All our pupils now begin Standard grade maths and English courses at the start of the second year and all will sit the exams at the end of S3."
The best feature of this streamlined curriculum, says S2 pupil Matthew Jamieson, is "learning faster". His friend Aimee O'Mara agrees and also likes the fact that "if you don't do well in third year you can catch up".
Both pupils admit to nervousness when they heard they would be taking Standard grades a year earlier than usual but, three months into the course, neither knows anyone who is struggling. The only objection either has to the accelerated curriculum is that more and better quality homework is expected of them.
Homework is a critical part of learning, says Mr Miller, who foresees this curriculum delivering huge benefits. "We stop the dip in second year; we reduce the number of exams in fourth year (so you'd be looking for increased attainment then) and, maybe most important, kids get two years to do Higher instead of one.
"We are borrowing time from the later stages of 5-14, when a lot of kids start coasting, and giving it at Higher, when it is really needed.
"Higher is usually a two-term dash, and nobody gets into university with good 5-14 grades."
For the maths and English teachers given the task of delivering the accelerated curriculum, initial doubts have been replaced by an uncommon zest for teaching second year courses.
"Teachers had reservations at first," says Pauline Allison, principal teacher of maths. "Would the kids be mature enough to handle this? Could we get through 5-14 in a year less?"
However, when they began looking at second and third year topics in detail, the maths department realised how little progress was made, so there was no problem fitting the secondary 5-14 work into one year. "I must admit this came as a big surprise."
Paring and compressing the English courses also proved straightforward, though for different reasons.
"Maths is very much about building on previous topics," says John Stuart, acting principal teacher of English. "But in our subject we tend to revisit the same skills at higher levels. "So for us it's not so much about content as about pushing the kids on as quickly and securely as possible.
"What we are already seeing is kids responding really well because they feel they are doing something important that counts towards their future.
They have had 5-14 right through primary but now they feel they are stepping up a gear."
Mr Miller believes the new system will raise attainment for the majority of pupils throughout their time at school and that no child will be worse off than before. "I am very confident of this, but that's not enough. We are monitoring very closely what is happening. I don't mean more testing but we can look at performance, attitude, homework, effort and this year we can also compare with third year pupils at exactly the same stage. What we are finding is that the younger pupils are doing at least as well and sometimes better than the older ones."
Depute headteacher John McKay, who is responsible for monitoring the second-year Standard graders, says that benefits are beginning to extend beyond English and maths. "Subjects in which essays play a big part - geography, history, social subjects - are seeing an improvement in their work.
"Other departments are starting to look at their own 5-14 and Standard grade courses and thinking that they, too, could be dropped down."
Mr Miller sounds a note of caution. "If the third years' Standard grade results, when we get them, look much like the fourth years', then we can say yes this works, let's look at other subjects, but right now we are taking it all very calmly, one step at a time.
"The key point is that no one will be worse off under the new curriculum.
Pupils who get a CreditGeneral pass in the third year will do Higher in two years, which will be a big improvement. Those who get a GeneralFoundation pass will do Intermediate in the fourth year.
"From what we have seen so far, the kids are responding tremendously well to the challenge we've set them, and so are the teachers."