What bit have you been left holding?

6th November 1998 at 00:00
AT PRIMARY school one poem I liked was about the blind men and the elephant, where each grasps part of it and comes to a totally wrong conclusion: "It's very like a tree, it's very like a rope." It's all a matter of perception.

A leading academic in East European studies was cutting his Glasgow hedge the other month when a new neighbour (perhaps noticing the old cardigan) crossed the road to ask how much he would charge to cut theirs. To his credit the professor just laughed, unconcerned that his intellect wasn't luminously apparent.

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. At our autumn emergency training day for Higher Still, while the audience sat at the coffee break muttering darkly at the event's inadequacy, the trainer was heard to remark how well things were going. (Presumably he meant that he had survived the first session without injury.) Part of the current impasse arises out of the differing viewpoints of the participants. Spending two or three years inured from reality working full-time at Higher Still isn't good preparation for rejection by practitioners whose enthusiasm was taken for granted.

Yet the objections I hear aren't based on Luddite refusal to accept change, but on unresolved issues of assessment, cheating, workload and multi-level teaching. If the old arrangements short-changed the 70 per cent of pupils for whom Highers were too difficult, why is Helen Liddell, in her recent panic to get the show on the road, saying that schools can delay three to five years in implementing Intermediate courses, so long as Higher courses are ready for August?

And just how will substantially more pupils achieve Highers under the new system unless by changing pass rates or lowering standards? Where do we purchase this seamless garment of attainment, obtain this ladder of success for all? Back to the rope, the trunk, and the elephant . . .

I still have the letter two years ago from the head of the Higher Still Development Unit saying my objections were emotive and anecdotal. I must plead guilty. Emotive because it still matters to me that pupils will be guinea-pigs for this emperor's new clothes exercise, and anecdotal because each objection was based on direct or verifiable experience.

It always comes as a shock when insulation from reality fosters misunderstanding. Recently a school psychologist was interviewing a school refuser. Attempting to win confidence she asked the pupil which subjects he liked. He set off briskly - "English, history, French" - and just as she glowed with anticipation at restoring the child's full attendance, he paused and asked: "What is French, anyway?"

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