Time to take a long, hard look at English

29th August 2003 at 01:00
As the trauma of the new Higher continues, teachers must look beyond the quick fix, says Ellen Doherty

ONCE again, as the new term begins, the post mortem continues to identify the one reason why Higher English results are again disappointing. If only it were that simple.

This year's cohort of Higher candidates did not just suddenly appear at the beginning of fifth year. They had an educational history, including achievements at Standard grade, which required to be investigated and informed decisions made.

Certainly the changes to post-16 English provision have had an impact. The removal of the folio from the external assessment has had an impact on results in that it frequently acted as a buffer for many candidates. Added to this, it is now essential that candidates have good reading skills.

Perhaps to fix the situation we need to look at current practice in secondary. Are we making a rod for our back by over-supporting candidates at Standard grade, especially in the folio, and giving them a false sense of their own ability? Do we need to look at how we are promoting and teaching reading at the earlier stages? How do we ensure that candidates are taught a variety of reading and critical thinking skills progressively and systematically?

One area which demands investigation is the accuracy of presentations. Do we really have so many potentially successful Higher candidates? Certainly, the Higher is highly respected and much desired by teachers, parents and pupils. But is it necessarily appropriate for everyone?

Surely there is a job to be done in educating parents and pupils about the value of the Intermediate 2 course - in itself or as a very sound part of a two-year journey to a successful Higher. If this is not the case, why did we bother with Higher Still in the first place? Parents certainly want the best for children - but the best may not be the Higher. Surely, regular and daily success at Intermediate 2 is better than regular and daily failure at Higher.

This discussion may well have to take place not just with parents. It may also prove necessary to have the same discussion with headteachers who are keen to have good Higher results within the context of target-setting.

Schools and headteachers are under pressure to raise attainment and meet targets, but it is essential to consider an equally important factor: pupils have the right to a positive educational experience. It is important that they are set high but realistic expectations.

So it could be the course structure. It could be inappropriate presentations. It could also be the exam. How many of us were really upset by its content? We knew what was going to be in paper 1: two passages, questions on passages one and two followed by questions on both passages.

No surprises there.

The questions were the usual suspects - understanding, analysis and evaluation. We knew all candidates who were sitting the exam had to be able to investigate the texts in depth and answer precisely and concisely as they have always been asked to do well before Higher Still kicked in.

This was followed by paper 2 where candidates had to answer two critical essays. Is this, perhaps, where things went wrong? Critical essays are certainly not a new concept. Candidates have always been asked to do these in the external exam but this year candidates were asked to attempt two as opposed to one. Was this too much of a challenge? Had they had sufficient experience of writing critical essays in class in a set time?

We have known of these issues for years. They must be addressed by the class teacher through a well balanced and challenging course accompanied by effective and accurate assessment. Is this again one of the issues? With Higher Still being relatively new, are all teachers completely confident and familiar with standards of assessment? Are all departments consistent and concordant? Are all of the estimates submitted accurate? Is more effective quality assurance and training required to be put in place by departments, education authorities and the SQA ?

Finally it may well be the case that the Cunningham review has failed to get the balance of the course right. As the external course assessment stands presently, it is simply a reflection of a candidate's ability in higher order reading skills and critical thinking.

Ellen Doherty is a quality improvement officer in North Lanarkshire's education department. She writes in a personal capacity.

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