Why more can be less effective;Platform;Opinion

9th July 1999 at 01:00
The success of S1 for one boy is tempered by fragmentation of the curriculum, says Brian Boyd.

IT DOESN'T seem a year since the Boyd family was contemplating the transition from primary to secondary school. Chris had enjoyed seven great years in Mossneuk Primary School in East Kilbride, and was looking forward to secondary with the customary mix of anticipation and apprehension. Could the secondary, Duncanrig, possibly live up to the expectations we had for it? Would the gains he had made in his learning and his confidence be sustained?

Chris, along with his peers, had spent two days in the secondary, organised into their S1 classes and had followed a shortened form of their S1 timetable. This happens in many schools up and down the country and is a real strength of the Scottish system. The transition is managed with great care and sensitivity and pupils are supported all the way, by guidance and learning support staff, by classroom teachers, and, increasingly, by senior pupils in a range of "buddy" schemes.

We had also attended the parents' open evening, had met many of his teachers and had received a brief talk from senior staff on the ethos of the school. Duncanrig seemed to embody all that is best about Scottish secondary schools - caring teachers, committed senior managers and a desire to educate the whole child. But, we still did worry a little about how he would cope with the transition from one to 15 teachers in a week, and hoped that the work he had done in P7 would be acknowledged in the secondary.

There was the usual spread of subjects in S1, although Chris had two modern foreign languages rather than one. He had done German for three years in Mossneuk, and in S1 he would continue it for one period a week while adding French for two periods.

In these days of uncertainty about the place of modern languages and the concerns over the efficacy of the primary programme, I would have to say that it has been great for Chris. He has none of the normal (male?) hang-ups about foreign language learning, and while he did experience a little "interference" when learning vocabulary for his tests in both languages after Easter, he has enjoyed both.

The problems of the S1 curriculum were there for all to see. Rotation was used to reduce the number of teacher contacts, but there was still a sense of fragmentation and inconsistency. Fewer than two hours a week is difficult for both teacher and pupil to build up a meaningful relationship and to achieve coherence in the learning process.

Add to this the eccentricities of 15 teachers, their lists of do's and don'ts and their rules about talking, using Tipp-Ex, insistence on pens, or pencils, and so on, and the experience soon teeters on the brink of discontinuity. The mitigating factor, of course. is the professionalism of the teachers and their commitment to getting the best out of every child.

Duncanrig has a number of innovative features, one of which is the introduction of a limited form of pupil choice at the end of S1. Thus Chris had to choose two out of the three social subjects and three out of five practical subjects.

It wasn't easy because he had enjoyed all of them to some extent. The rationale was to increase pupil motivation, to decrease the number of teachers encountered in a week and to raise attainment. It is an approach currently being contemplated by some councils and may be part of a national trend to see Standard grade move to S3. It did cause us a lot of thought, but in due course history, geography, music, computing and technological studies were chosen, though there was some regret at leaving modern studies, home economics and art behind.

Duncanrig is susceptible to the same pressures as any other school. The emphasis on "continuous improvement" and the pressure from HMI to focus on "attainment" of a measurable kind has had its impact. Why else would one of the "core" subjects have chosen to set the pupils by attainment as early as Easter of S1? It is, after all, a "good year" and as far as we could tell, the mixed ability S1 class Chris is in was working well. Perhaps it illustrates the ambivalence which exists nationally, since Duncanrig is not unique by any means. Across Scotland, setting is on the increase because of the push from HMI. A small minority of secondary schools are even setting from the beginning of S1 using 5-14 levels in ways that they were never designed to be used. Surely, we need some systematic research on the impact of setting, broad-banding and mixed ability on achievement and motivation?

The award ceremony was the climax of S1, and Chris has done well. He has worked hard and had his efforts rewarded. Something like 50 per cent of S1 and S2 pupils received an award of some kind - for achievement, for effort or for success in the school's praise system. Once again, it was a girl who has achieved the highest number of awards, reinforcing my wife's long-held belief in the superiority of her gender. But it doesn't seem to matter to him. He is really proud of his achievement.

For our part, we are grateful for the effort his teachers have put in on his behalf. In the face of a curriculum structure which makes it difficult to achieve continuity and progression, the school has worked hard at motivating the pupils. There has been a certain sense that S1, and now S2, are a preparation for something more important, rather than a stage in their own right.

The pantomime horse of primary-secondary curricular continuity has stayed upright but hasn't quite managed to pull in the one direction. No damage has been done but some opportunities may have been missed. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to more good years in Duncanrig Secondary School.

Brian Boyd, a former secondary headteacher, lectures in the education faculty, Strathclyde University.

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