Why the new English course does not work

4th February 2000 at 00:00
It makes pupils hate the subject, seems designed to make them fail and depresses teachers, says Doreen Thomson

Why are Scottish teachers of English not shouting "foul"? I am a learning support specialist and, in conjunction with an English specialist, am attempting to introduce Intermediate 1 English in a comprehensive school.

As learning support, I have had no formal in-service about Intermediate 1. To the best of my knowledge no learning support specialists in my area were invited to any in-service courses for this level.

All the students my English colleague and I are dealing with, have achieved a 4 in Standard grade. To progress, they proceed to Intermediate 1. We are following the guidelines laid down by the Scottish Qualifications Authority for this course.

In my view, this course has been set up for students to fail. Students are attempting to progress to the equivalent of a grade 3 in Standard grade, so why are similar standards and practices not in place in the arrangements for literature?

Students are being assessed for their memory skills and not necessarily their appreciation of literature. Why are they not allowed to have the stimulus material in front of them when they write their answers? Why are they not allowed to redraft their work? Why do they have to write another essay with a different title when their first attempt fails any of the four assessable elements?

My understanding was that Higher Still would make smooth progress to advanced learning available to all, but in English, students are being set up to fail. They now have to work at two pieces of literature until they pass.

I have been told that they can be assessed repeatedly and not just twice, as recommended in the guidelines. This means that a poem and a short story will be "done to death" until all can satisfy the assessment procedures.

Is this the way to instil a love of literature? I think not. Students are now going to hate reading poetry and short stories.

As for writing, they complain they do "nothing but writing" - notes, practice essays, assessments, re-assessment after re-assessment. Is this English?

Reading is not one of their favourite pastimes. The Special Study has been a trial for them. Some students took a couple of months to read their text but they managed. Their reward: a 500-word essay about it, showing understanding, analysis and evaluation of the text in expressive English with more or less correct syntax and spelling. Happily, they are allowed to re-draft it - more writing!

Many of the students now in Secondary 5 are required by law to remain at school. They are not old enough to leave. They are not terribly mature. Yet the requirements laid down by Higher Still are more in line with what is expected of undergraduates, or at least those doing Higher English.

The course appears to be a slightly watered down version of the Higher. If the students were capable of doing Higher, they would be presented for it. They are not, which is why they are doing Intermediate I.

My colleages in the English department tell me that students attempting Intermediate 2 are not meeting the requirements and are having to be downgraded to Intermediate I. They already have an equivalent qualification with a grade 3 pass at Standard grade. They too are being failed.

Students are voting with their feet. The result of a term's hard work has been erratic attendance and a massive uptake of doctor and dental appointments during English time. It can't all be flu. This year's students are being used as guinea pigs. They are failing and becoming very disheartened. I don't blame them. I, too, am disheartened. Not by the students, but by Higher Still.

Whoever wrote this course and guidelines has been living in an ivory tower and has not been in front of a group for which Intermediate 1 is supposedly suitable, for years.

The students in my school are no better or worse than in any average comprehensive. My colleagues in the English department are first class, the results in Standard grade and Higher excellent. In the last exams, only one pupil achieved a 5 at Standard grade, all others were above this. This year's students are the same. The only new element is Higher Still and it is failing everybody.

Exemplar material for Access 3 Special Study arrived in school the other day. A student with a 5, 6 or 7 in Standard grade was expected to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's short story Smeddum unaided and then write a simple essay on it.

I find this almost incredible. Students in my school do this text at Higher and find it quite difficult. If there are to be no changes this session in the arrangements for internal assessments of the literature section, then I am teaching these students to fail. I have taught for more than 30 years and this has never been my philosophy. I don't want to start now.

"I am deeply disappointed. I was enthusiastic when Higher Still was presented as the opportunity for all students to progress and those not able to do Higher would be able to advance upwards, at their own pace. How naive I was! Now I am saddened to discover less able pupils will be "thrown to the wolves" and made to feel inadequate - at least as far as English is concerned.

All I would ask for this session is that students be permitted to have the stimulus material in front of them when they write their answers in literature and that they be allowed to re-draft their work once. Re-drafting is a good way of learning how to improve a piece. Writing another essay becomes tedious for students at this level.

If you haven't embarked on Higher Still Intermediate 1 English this session, you are fortunate. If you have, are there no teachers of English in Scotland who share my views? If you are out there, where are you? And why are you not campaigning for more realistic arrangements for Intermediate 1 and 2?

Perhaps the answer would be to re-present these pupils for Standard grade and ignore Higher Still.

Doreen Thomson is principal teacher for learning support at St Patrick's High School, North Lanarkshire

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