Whatever happened to inspirational English?

16th February 2001 at 00:00
A hybrid Higher course too thirled to a vocational remit has been reduced to a kind of learning and assessment by numbers, says David Cockburn.

As I have always maintained, if you hang around education long enough, you become fashionable again. They are toying with the idea of reintroducing setting - in another guise, of course. Someone has had the idea that single-sex classes may improve the performance of boys. And there is even talk of introducing grammar.

We can certainly now use the term "oxymoron" without feeling guilty or embarrassed. No doubt Latin, too, will one day make its comeback. But what about inspiration, I hear you ask. I wouldn't hold your whispered breath too long - it'll be a while before that becomes the vogue, if it ever was. But much does come round again. Like bits of Higher English.

I sat my Higher English in the heady days of 1960. It hadn't changed much in God knows how long and wasn't about to change significantly for another 29 years, though no one knew that at the time. Practical criticism and the revamped interpretation paper had been introduced somewhere between my leaving school and becoming a Scottish Examination Board examiner in 1975, but that was all.

Well, perhaps not quite all. You see, the interpretation I sat involved a short passage with few questions, though the questions did involve understanding meaning, some analysis, and an attempt at evaluating effect - though those terms were only hinted at in the merest undertones. By the time I came to the Exam Board (as it was then), the passage had lengthened considerably from the 200-odd words by Bertrand Russell, which both puzzled and inspired me, and the questions were in sections. Section 1 was about meanings of words and ideas, Section 2 was about analysing the text, Section 3 was the precis (whatever happened to the precis?) and Section 4 involved questions about writer technique. I suppose you could say Section 1 equalled understanding, Section 2 equalled analysis, Section 4 equalled evaluation. Sound familiar?

Whatever happened to Section 3? It was dropped a long time ago on the grounds that it was too difficult.

We abandoned the sections with the mould-breaking appearance of Revised Higher in 1989. The revolutionary folio of personal studies was introduced as a kind of sop to continuous assessment, though it was never permitted to be internally assessed. The conditions for th interpretation paper allowed there to be one or two passages, and the removal of the constraints of having to ask questions that fitted sections had a liberating effect on setters.

The examining team then nudged the questions away from the traditional emphasis on meanings and content towards writer technique. The argument was that if we questioned writer technique, the reading skills required would be practised in schools, and that, in turn, would lead candidates to adopt those very techniques in their own writing.

Also, we eschewed any idea of questions about writer purpose along with all those who had read their Barthes and Foucault. But with Higher Still the wheel has come full circle. Author purpose is alive and well. The classification of questions into sections is back - except that the section titles are hieroglyphics in the margin rather than proper headings. In keeping with previous revisions of the Higher, more has been dropped from the examination: the report has vanished to become an unlikely option, and the specified texts have (thankfully) disappeared altogether, though to be replaced by nothing. The phoenix of textual analysis has emerged like a forced fledgling from the ashes of practical criticism.

And then there are the National Assessment Bank units (or NABs, as they are referred to, unironically). The old ink exercise is back, dressed up in resplendent new clothes, with all kinds of fail-safes to prevent plagiarism and corruption.

I understand the thinking behind Higher Still, though I preferred the intelligence and rigour of the Howie committee's analysis. Its approach was synoptic, recognising the failure of the slow pace of S1 and S2, the gentle acceleration through S3 to Standard grade and the hysterical two-term dash to Highers in the May of S5. It proposed a solution, ScotBac and ScotCert, which after years of deliberation was thought to be too divisive. So we got the hybrid Higher which is too thirled to vocational education in its skills-based approach. A kind of teaching, learning and assessing by numbers. Or by performance criteria. Which doesn't leave a lot of room for inspiration.

I remember my Higher English exam and I remember the inspired teaching that prepared me for it. Will those candidates who are around in 2041 remember theirs? Maybe we need to think again.

David Cockburn has returned to teaching at Waid Academy, Fife.

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