Three can work as one
Angus's decision (TESS, September 4) to reduce fragmentation in the first two years of secondary schools is to be commended. It is an undoubted weakness of the Scottish education system that pupils move from a one-teacher, one-classroom situation in the primary to a bewildering 15 or more subjects, classrooms and teachers in the first year of secondary.
As the Inspectorate noted in Achieving Success in S1 and S2, pupils are expected to "follow too many courses simultaneously without sufficient time to establish the depth of understanding which comes from sustained teaching".
Yet the plan doesn't really go far enough. The council's target of a maximum of 12 subjects is a modest one, and a dozen different subjects and classrooms are still, for many pupils, too confusing.
One option which has not been taken up by Angus is for the integration of the social subjects in S1 and S2. This would provide an opportunity to replace three discrete subjects - geography, history and modern studies - with one, social studies.
The idea is not new and past suggestions for integration of the social subjects have been criticised and rejected by many teachers, in all three areas. Integration of S1-S2 courses, it was suggested, would threaten department independence and the number of promoted posts which are available. An integrated course would also require new materials and resources and thereby increase already onerous workloads.
But such objections can be countered and the benefits of an integrated social studies course for pupils - including a much easier transition from primary to secondary and a more manageable timetable - are too compelling to ignore.
Teachers in the social subjects themselves have much to gain from an integrated S1-S2 course. As a geography teacher, I will have nine S1-S2 classes during the current session. If an integrated social studies course was being offered I would have three.
The advantages are obvious. For a start it is much easier to develop and sustain a positive relationship with a class which you see three times a week for the session instead of once a week throughout the year or, if blocking is in place, three times a week for a short teaching block.
It is easier, and less stressful, to mark a pile of 90 jotters than 270. The ever-increasing workload associated with issuing, correcting and monitoring homework would be considerably reduced with a smaller group of pupils.
An integrated course would also mean a cut in the considerable workload for assessment and reporting. At present I have a very daunting 270 S1-S2 pupils to assess and report on in the course of the session. Ninety would be more manageable.
Development work would be easier because instead of three small groups of teachers developing three different courses there would be a much larger pool of teachers developing one common course. The supply of textbooks and other classroom materials would be increased. At present publishers do not offer a great range of resources which meet the precise requirements of S1-S2 geography, history and modern studies because potential sales are too small. A social studies course would offer higher sales and invite a wider range of resources.
More importantly, from a teaching and learning standpoint, many topics and issues are best tackled from a general social studies perspective, as they are in the primary school, rather than through a more specialised discrete subject approach.
Senior management and guidance teams would benefit from an integrated social studies course with easier timetabling, simpler cover arrangements and fewer children encountering difficulties in the transfer from primary to secondary. Science provides the model for integration in S1 and S2. Most pupils receive one science teacher in one laboratory for an integrated course which includes elements of chemistry, physics and biology. As well as reducing fragmentation such a course encourages more collaboration and co-operation among teachers in the faculty.
The idea of an integrated social studies course in S1 and S2 is, I believe, more acceptable than it was in the past when many teachers were trained in just one of the discrete subjects. Today there are many more teachers with dual qualifications and a more receptive attitude to integration.
Calum Stewart teaches geography in a West of Scotland secondary.
Next week: modern studies say no.