The 'top class' destroyers;Opinion
OF ALL the devices, Forsythiana included, aimed at the deliberate disintegration of Scotland's comprehensive school structure, few threaten it more than the Scottish Office proposals on the age and stage at which Standard grade can be taken.
Options for change are laid down in a consultation paper, but the one favoured by the Government would allow pupils to sit Standard grade and Higher a year earlier than is prescribed at present, in other words in S3 and S4 respectively. The aim is to accelerate progress by so-called "high-fliers" and would allow them to react against the alleged torpor afflicting many in the first two years of secondary.
The consultation paper says that "while restrictions do not feature in the system of England and Wales, they are of long standing in Scotland". But the new proposals signal an assault on the established, and by the vast majority accepted, framework.
First, as far as the chosen candidates are concerned, how sure can anyone be that the included, and in consequence the not included will have been accurately selected? I think, never or hardly ever. The rate of development and maturity in youngsters aged 13-14, not to mention the differences between the sexes, is inconsistent. Family circumstances, emotional difficulties and, conversely, surges of ambition and energy can vary the pecking order remarkably.
Here is a historical illustration. In Wales in the 1930s, despite the solemnity of parents signing over a sixpenny stamp to keep their offspring at a grammar school, between a quarter and a third of those "selected" departed before the end of their four years, not having made the grade.
Second, and staying with the pupils' end of things, the divisiveness whose effects have been so often observed between the brighter (supposedly) and the not-so-hot would reappear. That would disadvantage those not picked for S3 presentation and also risk inflating the egos of the others. The shout is for "social inclusiveness" by some in authority. This proposed alteration would work adversely to that noble ideal.
Third, the change implicitly proposes a philosophy of what the purpose of education is. Are the children there simply to be thrust towards the examinable, recordable amassing of information, or are they to have leave and lease, if the work is easily within their grasp, to enjoy and profit from the aesthetic, recreational and cultural opportunities round about them?
Next I invite consideration of the effects on curricular management. It is possible to bridge two of the present groupings within Standard grade - Foundation General and GeneralCredit. To provide a fast track for S3 pupils has severe staffing implications, and such comprehensiveness in class groupings would no longer be possible. Moreover, in many schools the numbers being promulgated for S3 presentation are not likely to be economic. Surely this is an occasion for a Benthamite view - the greatest good of the greatest number.
Finally, but certainly not minimally, let us think about the third force - or is it the fifth column? - the parents. It is not unknown for mums and dads to contest the school's advice about Credit or General. Can we imagine the pressure on a school to elevate pupils into the S3 presentation class?
To be even more pessimistic, though I think realistic, if a school drawing from a relatively underprivileged area decides after all consideration that it cannot incur the social and staffing costs of running a "top" class, will not the devastating effects of the placing requests mechanisms be given a further turn of the screw as a nearby establishment proudly proclaims its ability to provide such presentations?
John Taylor is a former secondary headteacher and church representative on North Ayrshire education committee.