Tension rises as classrooms count down to August 1999

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Short on materials, training and time

The upper secondary is facing one of its most critical sessions as curricular reform nears. Neil Munro beginsa major new series, talking to education officials, right,and visiting one of Scotland's smallest secondaries, below

Ian MacLaren is the perfect embodiment of the challenges Higher Still poses for the small secondary school.

As assistant head in the 300-pupil Arran High, which is in the former Education Minister's Cunninghame North constituency, he has oversight of guidance and of learning support, which has no principal teacher.

He is also head of geography, indeed the only full-time geography teacher. At other times, he is the year head for fourth, fifth and sixth-year pupils. And, when time is heavy on his hands, he acts as Higher Still co-ordinator.

"Curriculum and staff development are major problems for small secondary schools," Susan Smith, the newly appointed head, says. "These aspects of any initiative create a lot of pressure, particularly when you have 5-14 changes and ongoing revision to Standard grade subjects at the same time. Teachers are always concerned at the effect all this could have on their pupils, as they rush to combine their teaching with getting courses and materials ready on time.

"We feel we will not be as prepared as we would like to be and, if it means being just a couple of steps ahead of the class, that cannot be good for our students. Teachers, in my experience, like to feel they are ready and comfortable in their teaching, so they can be fair to their students."

The late arrival of the support material does not leave Ms Smith impressed. "It's not just a matter of having a thousand pages presented to you but having the time to absorb the information and make the necessary changes. Despite the official line, there is no doubt that some subjects, though not all, will require substantial changes. The result is that some departments, like modern languages and modern studies, are readier than others because they face less of an upheaval."

The difficulties of teachers being released to train and prepare are well illustrated by Arran High's staffing. English and maths have just two teachers in addition to the principal teachers, while the sole physics teacher is also the depute.

Art has 1.6 teachers, business studies one, computing 0.8, technological studies two, modern languages two, RE 0.2, biology one, chemistry two, home economics 1.3, music 1.4 and PE two (one of whom also works with primary pupils). Mr MacLaren is assisted in geography by 0.2 of a teacher.

A number of principal teachers in North Ayrshire have volunteered to act as Higher Still subject co-ordinators, for which they were given five days for preparation last year increasing to 10 days this year. None of Arran High's PTs has volunteered: small schools on small islands are doubly disadvantaged in finding specialist supply cover.

Yet Ms Smith says Arran High is relatively well off both in its staffing complement and staff commitment. The school is able to offer three social subjects, three sciences and two out of the three technological subjects.

The only area which has suffered is modern languages which is being restricted to French at Standard grade and Higher. German and Spanish modules will probably be offered as a Higher Still Intermediate 12 course.

"We are lucky in having a very committed staff," she says."Imagine if you had a disillusioned and disgruntled staff who were fedup and interested only in early retirement."

In many ways, Higher Still has sharpened the focus on the perennial problems of small secondaries. Ms Smith has, for example, been sounding out a number of further education colleges on behalf of a fifth-year pupil who cannot take the four Higher subjects of his choice because of a timetabling clash.

Arran High, unlike mainland schools, will not be able to make "neighbourhood arrangements" with other schools and colleges. It is particularly concerned if small schools cannot offer a full range of Advanced Highers, particularly if these become the currency for university entry or are used by hard-up students to skip their first year.

Starting from a good baseline provision of IT in the school, the staff plan to "look seriously" at expanding the use of technology such as video-conferencing. North Ayrshire is committed to a two-year investment programme to link its 10 secondary schools.

Similarly, while guidance is recognised as another pressure point under Higher Still, Arran High has a generous staffing policy reinforced by the advantages of being in a small community where the staff know the pupils.

The guidance team consists of a principal teacher, whose only subject commitment is taking personal and social education classes, and three assistant principal teachers. In addition North Ayrshire is placing at least two computer stations in every secondary to give staff and pupils access to the PlanIT and Progress databases, which provide information on how Higher Still can fit into post-school courses and careers.

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