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Time to go public and open up the debate

Disquiet about the proposals for English in Higher Still is not being appeased. Articles by Tony McManus last week and Eddie Poyner on the opposite page today claim that in content and assessment the proposals remain seriously flawed. Some of the worries, especially about the burden of internal assessment, are shared by teachers of other subjects.

But English has peculiar problems. It is a key subject for most Higher candidates. It demands large amounts of written work which has to be marked by teachers and frequently involves value judgments. It is set to combine elements from "traditional" Higher courses and those from communication, as the area is known in further education. It has therefore been recast more than most Higher subjects and remains prey to tensions between advocates of teaching literary appreciation and those for whom it is a core skill.

The compilers of the new programme, which will encompass an access course and two intermediate levels as well as Higher itself, believe that teacher concerns are allayed by in-service sessions. They say that partial grasp of the facts combined with natural wariness produced the resentment which, for example, boiled over at a meeting in Edinburgh. But the cascade effect by which knowledge is supposed to spread through a department has not had the results hoped for. It has simply extended the numbers of the dispirited.

Creators of the English proposals, who have lived with them for several years, are understandably defensive. Members of the Inspectorate and the Higher Still Development Unit charged with implementing the programme can easily become detached from the reality of classroom conditions. Higher Still has twice been postponed, they will say. Further delay is impossible. Problems will be ironed out once the programme is up and running, and they will probably seem less threatening by then, too.

These responses are inadequate. They might be enough if the proposals had been thoroughly discussed in public and if continuing objectors could be described as implacable foot-draggers. But the strange thing is that amid the welter of publicity for Higher Still the radical changes foisted upon English teachers have not been fully set out and debated except in subject meetings. Last week Mr McManus called for the proposals to be scrapped. Mr Poyner devises an alternative syllabus, separating the needs of most pupils from those who choose a grounding in literature.

Neither view is likely to find much favour. But there is still time for wider discussion which might throw light on how English ought to be regarded nowadays. If tensions between the proponents of different concepts were not resolved, at least they might no longer isolate schoolteachers and college lecturers in opposing camps, where the point and purpose of Higher Still are negated. Even at this late stage the Inspectorate should go public and open up the debate.

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