Ways to lighten the load in early secondary;School management;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
Brian Boyd says we should listen to the views of pupils in planning the secondary curriculum

Much has been written about the shortcomings of Secondary 1 and 2. But one important source of evidence is rarely considered - the views of the young people. My son, Chris, has just started at a comprehensive, and so far "it's had its ups and downs".

One drawback is the timetable. There were so many teachers to get to know - some 16 in fact, when rotations were taken into account - and that proved difficult at first.

There were also internal changes as a result of promotions, which meant he lost his English teacher whom he really liked. The replacement was also excellent, but it wasn't just the change which was disconcerting - it was the fact that no one explained why it was being made. When he asked during his guidance interview, he was told. But it's useful to be reminded that pupils like to be informed on matters which affect them.

The biggest problem is the plan of the school. Chris felt "like a pinball" as he tried to get from art to music to French to home economics.

I tried to explain how the secondary timetable works, but when he asked if the timetabler knew that you can't get from art to music at period changeover without being late, I had to admit that this kind of detail is rarely one of the variables. Maybe it should be. Maybe every timetabler should shadow a different class each day at the start of term to see it from a pupil's perspective.

Never mind the quality and variety of teaching strategies, can you get to classes on time? When you consider that new first years spend their first weeks in a state of apprehension about being late, it only takes one teacher to say "no one's leaving my class until everyone is silent," to cause real anxiety.

In the early weeks it was difficult getting used to an unbalanced day - four periods in the morning, a late lunch and two periods without a break in the afternoon. He's getting used to it now. But do we really think creatively about timetables? Does every subject and every year group need the same length of period at every time of the day?

Homework in secondary can be given by many more teachers and the time spent on it has definitely increased. On the plus side, the homework diary helps with organisation and teachers rarely give homework for the next day (when they do, it can throw household arrangements into confusion).

But by far the biggest problem from Chris's point of view is the lack of anywhere to put bags, books or jackets during the day. Tuesday's bag is almost impossible to carry. Books, folders, trainers and gym kit, clarinet and music, as well as pencil cases, packed lunch (because of band practice) - make it a dead weight. France has just stipulated a maximum weight to be carried by school children. Maybe we need to do the same, or at least have lockers in which items can be safely stored during the day. Yes, they can bring hassle - lost keys, vandalism etc, but it may be worth looking at it from the pupils' perspective.

What Chris really likes at secondary school is the variety. He's enjoying his new subjects and teachers. They all have their own ways of doing things but he's adapted to that and feels that they care about him and his friends. They use praise a lot and are very encouraging. In particular, the Super Stars stamps which go into the homework diary are a great motivator.

He likes the freedom he is now getting. He can go in early to school and spend time in the music department. He has a number of lunchtime activities. And he has met new friends. He really likes Duncanrig Secondary - and so do we as his parents. So, although he was nervous about the changeover, Chris is enjoying secondary school.

If there are changes to be made to the structure in S1 and S2 - and I believe there are - it is from a strong base of professional commitment and caring. If we keep in mind that the objective is to build progression and continuity into children's learning, surely solutions cannot be too hard to find.

Brian Boyd is director of the postgrad certificate in learning and teaching at the University of Strathclyde

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