Who's playing Creon with classical studies

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Classics teachers have been told to "freshen up" for Higher Still. You can tell it's a contentious issue by the quality of the folders and the glossy paper used for discussion documents.

Now I don't object to change in itself. Who for instance could object to having intermediate courses to bridge the gap between moderate Standard grade achievement and Higher? And what classics teacher could object to the splendid classical studies Higher introduced only three years ago? It is a great success. What I do object to is unnecessary change and being told that we should welcome the new challenges posed by Higher Still as if we were vainly searching for something to get our teeth into.

The implication is that we are stuck in a rut and behind the times and that a change in the syllabus would be a fine tonic. In fact, many classicists would have every reason to be reasonably optimistic if we didn't have another upheaval on the horizon. We now have modular provision for Latin and Greek; the percentage of band As at Latin Higher has returned to the normal percentage which existed before the revised Higher in 1989; and the classical studies Higher is popular with sixth formers. It should not escape the notice of the powers that be that it teaches moral values and deals in particular with the duties of citizenship by studying democracy in ancient Athens and the value of being a citizen in the Roman empire.

Drama is an important part of the course, partly because one play, Antigone, is immensely popular and well resourced, and one comedy, Lysistrata, is down to earth and shows how public opinion can influence politicians: the women in Greece retain from sexual intercourse with their husbands in an effort to persuade the politicians (men of course) to listen to the woman in the street and give up war. What could be more topical than that the public should have their say?

In the smaller world of classics teachers, the vast majority want Antigone to be retained. Yet our pleas are being ignored. In the play itself the tyrannical King Creon is told that all his people in Thebes disagree with him, to which he replies haughtily: "Since when do I take my orders from the people of Thebes?" Well, those teaching the course at the chalkface would like their "king" to listen to their views; we were told that nothing was irreversible, but when we put forward this opinion, were told to "freshen up" because our viewpoint was very, very strongly opposed. So much for democracy. No other play in my knowledge has generated such a diversity of opinion and so inspired pupils to give their own viewpoint. We teachers feel confident with it; videos exist and there is a wealth of back-up material. In short, classical studies depends on the syllabus being popular.

So where is Antigone going? It is earmarked as part of the intermediate syllabus. Now progression is essential for some subjects like computer studies where the majority of the 4,000 pupils doing Higher will have been among the 18,000 taking Standard grade; some would be better off with an "intermediate" level, and progression must be logical. But in classical studies, where more pupils take Higher than Standard grade, only 9 per cent of the 426 Higher pupils have taken Standard grade. The majority (324 in 1996) are sixth-year pupils taking classical studies for the first time. Their results are very good and they do not need an intermediate level (or any progression). I predict that the uptake for the intermediate level will be small and that the play will be wasted.

The questions we were invited to answer deliberately avoided any reference to the choice of texts. Many teachers were also astonished by other aspects of the consultation. For instance when teachers expressed scepticism about "internal" marking, we were told that it was surely better than entrusting pupils' work to "complete strangers". Never before had we heard the Scottish Examination Board, with all its excellent procedures and checks, being dismissed in such cavalier fashion.

I plead with the Higher Still Development Unit to listen to our views and to reduce the frenetic pace of the changes. Classics teachers more than other teachers already fear that the increase in allocated hours to 160 hours per subject will result in pupils studying fewer minority subjects. Do not add to our problems by making the course less popular than it is now.

Paul Bailey is principal teacher of classics at St Augustine's School, Edinburgh.

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