Wary stand - off for siege subject

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Is there yet another crisis in Higher English, or is the subject settling down? David Henderson reviews the evidence

THIS week's 5.5 per cent drop in the Higher English pass rate grabbed the headlines but is hardly unexpected given the fall last year of 7.6 per cent which triggered an informal ministerial inquiry. The trend has been confirmed but slowed.

Since last August's results, English has been further amended, the third time in three years that most students have taken a different exam, such is the controversy over what to teach and assess. Reforms to fit the Higher Still mould were delayed for two years and then amended by a further review.

Many teachers are continuing to press for substantial change, despite the 2001 review taking soundings across the profession. Chaired by Ken Cunningham, headteacher of Hillhead High in Glasgow, its findings were tweaked by the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The principal casualty was discrete writing, which lacks any form of external assessment. Critics suggest students can now achieve a high pass without demonstrating any ability to write creatively.

Mr Cunningham's overriding concern was to ease the assessment burden on staff, which has largely been achieved. Others are pressing for more root and branch reform but some such as Larry Flanagan (see below), coincidentally a principal teacher of English at Hillhead, and a key figure in the Educational Institute of Scotland debate on English, believe less radical adjustments would ease the concerns.

In the continuing turmoil, the subject's chief examiner last session took Higher students - and by implication some teachers - to task by criticising some work as "barely literate". Many entries were simply not up to standard and that view is repeated this year.

As Bill Boyd, depute head at Prestwick Academy, pointed out in last week's TES Scotland, many students - backed by their parents - are taking a Higher that is too difficult for them and should be taking Intermediate over two years. But parents know the importance of the Higher and press for their children's inclusion, aware that a compensatory A pass at Intermediate 2 is available for a close fail.

The 2.5 per cent rise in this year's Higher mathematics pass rate may mean that maths departments have been more successful in persuading students to veer away from a difficult subject to a lesser standard after last year's warning.

English teachers wrestling with their subject can draw no sympathy from HMI which last March highlighted performance in S5 and S6 as only "fair but improving". A significant number of pupils were presented for courses above their level of competence.

More worryingly, Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, pointed to the 25 per cent of students who gain a Credit at Standard grade and then fail to achieve an A-C pass at Higher. Mr Donaldson highlighted the intensity of work in S5 and the leap in standard from S4. "It is important teachers do not teach just to Standard grade but anticipate some of the more demanding language challenges around in fifth year," he stated.

In their report on English language work, inspectors said that weak spelling, punctuation and syntax often obscure what pupils want to say and this stops them going beyond a basic response.

To complete the picture, several university departments, including at least one devoted to initial teacher training, claim that many first-year students are ill-prepared for post-school language work despite strong passes at Higher.

The reasons may lie in the difficulties teachers face in persuading fifth-year students to read beyond the basic course requirements. Young people are becoming non-readers in their leisure time.

Many blame the Higher course itself for the problems and the deep divisions among English teachers and lecturers in the further education sector. Brian Boyd, a Strathclyde University lecturer, contends that the Higher course is badly designed and fails to develop the importance given to talking and writing at Standard grade.

"There is a real weakness that writing is no longer part of the external exam. It does seem quite bizarre," Mr Boyd says, pointing out that there are fewer complaints about the Advanced Higher.

Like others, he would like writing brought back in but is pressing for wider reform.

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