Subject 'dinosaurs' bite back

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
History, geography and modern studies fear setting will kill 'premier league' hopes

One of Labour's key policy advisers in Scotland has been attacked for offering "simplistic solutions" to curriculum problems in the first and second years of secondary.

Frank Cooney, head of social studies at the Northern College and a former adviser in Grampian, addressing a 5-14 conference in Dundee, challenged Brian Boyd's call for integrated teaching in S1S2 and condemned plans to limit the number of subject teachers that taught pupils.

Departmental heads, Mr Cooney said, were sometimes characterised as "dominie dinosaurs" but could deliver the 5-14 curriculum effectively if the social subjects were taught in rotation.

Mr Cooney, a former modern studies principal teacher, said history, geography and modern studies should rotate in blocks. "The discrete delivery of one period a week with no co-operation between social subjects is a recipe for disaster and justifies all the complaints by education officials and critics of social subjects," he told the conference, organised by Northern College of Education and the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.

Rotating classes would ensure social subjects were "solutions not obstacles", he said. "Departments must work together, must collaborate, must have a coherence in their policy and structure."

Rotation, a practice adopted by a significant number of schools, ensured pupils had one social studies teacher at a time, allowing for greater in-depth study. A teacher would only need one set of books and be marking one set of jotters. Pupils might do history from August to the October break, geography until Christmas and modern studies in the spring term.

Mr Cooney said mixed-ability teaching had "no viable future" following damning criticism from the Inspectorate. In an unexpected admission, he called Achievement for All a "teacher-friendly" document that had been misread by councils in their criticism of selection and setting. He was "disappointed" councils were not using the report to question their current structures.

Tighter budgets and the transfer of resources to primary schools would mean rising class sizes in secondary, which in turn would increase pressure on teachers to use attainment groups or setting. Schools that moved to a rotation system would find it easier to cope with greater internal selection, Mr Cooney suggested.

The pressure was on social subjects to move away from mixed ability, especially if key departments such as mathematics, English, science and modern languages were being advised to be in the frontline of setting. Social subjects could be excluded from "the premier league" if they did not follow the pattern. "We are at the crossroads for social subjects. If we do take the initiative and take on board the criticisms, we do not deserve a future," he said.

The fear was that unless 5-14 aims were implemented within the next two years, all the focus of secondary staff would be switched to Higher Still reforms, a point echoed by Sheila Jackson, head of Queensferry primary. Links with secondaries, crucial to planning in environmental studies, were "not really happening yet", she said.

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