Is there anybody listening

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
If problems with communication are at the root of the Higher Still crisis, the new English and communication course has probably manured the roots. A flood of documentation may satisfy ministers that everything is being done to help. But the attitude of many teachers could probably be summed up as "too much, too late".

"We can't even plan the planning," Fiona Norris, head of English at Eyemouth High, says. "I wouldn't like to say the time-scale of a start for the new Higher next August - which means June - is going to be impossible, but it is going to be very difficult."

Course arrangements reached most schools as late as August. And the reduction in assessment ordered by the previous Education Minister in February has meant delays in issuing the support material for internal assessment, which will now not be available for the courses that will replace the existing Higher until later this month.

This will be followed by special training sessions for principal English teachers who will then be expected to "cascade" their knowledge down to the class teacher, who will have to absorb and adapt new material and practices. In the meantime, teaching must go on.

Another head of English, who did not wish to be quoted, says teachers remain concerned at their lack of knowledge and the absence of exemplification. "Even where there is adequate exemplification, it is not necessarily the texts teachers are using or wish to use. We only received the course arrangements in August, so the time for teachers to absorb these is totally inadequate. "

Ms Norris pinpoints the delay in receiving assessment back-up, such as specimen exam papers and support materials, as particularly reprehensible. "The only thing I have received is a tiny pack on seen textual analysis - for which there is no longer a learning outcome. So for most teachers, this is completely useless."

Vocal critics such as Tony McManus, an English teacher at Queensferry High, argue that the Higher Still framework is flawed. The suspiciously vocational terminology of "learning outcomes" and "performance criteria" is one language many do not want to know.

The same fundamentalist critique is offered by Eddie Poyner, principal English teacher at Carluke High. Mr Poyner dismisses the "verbal jungle" of the latest 350-page English and communications document as pompous, obvious, repetitive, obscure and complex. In other words, he does not like it.

The authorities claim that the present Higher fits comfortably into Higher Still. The perception in schools that "communication" is about training while the FE sector sees "English" as an academic discipline has little validity, according to Ernie Spencer, the English HMI. While contexts vary, there are no differences in the skills and knowledge covered, Mr Spencer says.

He points out that where students (as is most likely) do the specialist study in literature rather than the specialist option in language and oral communication the split between literary and language work in Higher Still English will be 50:50. This compares with 46 per cent to 54 per cent in the existing Higher.

Even where students take the non-literary specialist study, the proportion of literary work will be 33 per cent - the same as the modular combination of National Certificate communication 4 and literature 1, which is accepted as the equivalent of the present Higher for entry to higher education.

Mr McManus takes the view that the Higher Still system is "summative" - rigid, formulaic and bureaucratic. He claims it will lead to "excessive coaching and drilling, detracting from genuine learning, enrichment and attainment". The existing Higher, on the other hand, takes a "formative" approach, allowing pupils to develop their full abilities but not in a step by step fashion.

Mr Spencer counters that both exams require teachers and markers to do exactly the same - make professional judgments about the key qualities in students' work. If Higher Still English could be assessed mechanically, he says, there would be no need for the exemplification of and commentary on students' work emanating from the National Assessment Bank.

The great philosophical charge against Higher Still is that it is based on "linear" learning, whereas English is concerned with processes and cycles of development. It is not maths, in other words, where pupils must complete each step before they move on to the next.

Mr Spencer says the learning outcomes (abilities to be demonstrated) and performance criteria (components of those abilities) make it clear that "they refer to complex psycho-linguistic skills which cannot be developed in any simple step by step sequence".

But the Higher Still Development Unit is well aware it has a real worry on its hands, and has been working on exemplification of how the units - the 40-hour building blocks for all Higher Still courses - can be combined to produce an integrated course.

Stuart Holden, the unit's development officer responsible for English, believes it will be able to demonstrate that, for example, a single text can be used to cover a range of skills, including group discussion and writing a critical essay based on the text.

Moira Reynolds, head of English at St Ninian's High in Eastwood, also accepts that texts and course content can be used in a way that differentiates learning for the student.

Mr Holden says the development unit's analysis has shown that English teachers do not need fresh materials. "Schools already have The Crucible and similar texts and they don't need more. What they do need is help to adapt existing texts to the Higher Still framework."

Pat MacDaid, English adviser in Glasgow, plans to place teachers on secondment or give them commissions to adapt existing material to the new requirements, aiming for "as comprehensive an approach as possible".

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