Variety without challenge?

Are there too many subjects at S1 and S2? Seonag MacKinnon opens a two-page focus on the problems of early secondary

Are Secondary 1 and 2 a waste of time? Are children overwhelmed by the mass of subjects and teachers confronting them when they leave the sheltered world of primary projects, with their stability and continuity? Talk to leading educationists and they call for an overhaul of the system. Talk to heads at the chalkface and you get a very different picture.

An HMI report on S1 and S2 is due out at the end of this month, but according to Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools speaking at a conference last month, it will not recommend "radical surgery". He concedes that there are probably too many subjects and courses, and stresses that S1 and S2 should be seen as the start of a four-year course. But will he grasp this opportunity to change it?

Not in the view of one leading Scottish educationist, who wished to remain nameless: "I think they'll flunk it. All hell would break loose if they said you have to have just six subjects. There's too much vested interest. Every department naturally wants to defend its territory."

Brian Boyd, associate director of Strathclyde University's Quality in Educatin Centre, feels that HMI is unlikely to overhaul 5-14 because it is their baby: "They are hardly likely to promote that, since it is almost an admission that 5-14 hasn't worked in the sense of bringing primary and S1 and S2 together. I have no confidence that they will be big enough to admit that. It is not part of their culture."

Boyd is convinced there is a problem during these first two years of secondary: "Children like the variety but there is a lack of challenge, a lack of building upon what happened in primary. They keep telling you they're doing things they have already done. Headteachers say they don't get the right kind of information from the primary or they can't trust it. So they use this word 'consolidation' to describe: 'Let's start you at level D, even if the primary says you are at E'."

Boyd wants more resources to allow greater liaison between primary and secondary staff. "It is not fashionable to say that what you need are resources and time to allow for two sets of teachers to meet on a regular basis to discuss pupils' work. A shared set of beliefs would emerge."

Pointing to the recent decision of North Lanarkshire to slash the amount of time spent on environmental studies and devote more to literacy and numeracy, Boyd expresses sympathy for primary teachers sending pupils onto secondary: "They have been getting it in the neck for not implementing 5-14 fully and because they are not teaching in enough depth."

Rotation of subjects is one way to reduce the number studied by S1 and S2 pupils at any given time. Boyd points out: "There have always been great objections from principal teachers who believe that pupils will choose for third year the subjects they had most recently. But it is never borne out. Pupils choose subjects for a whole host of reasons such as advice from parents and whether they like the teacher."

Mike Baughan of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, which has recently submitted proposals for revised secondary curriculum guidelines, emphasises the need for challenge and sense of purpose: "It is counter-productive to have fallow years. Youngsters get into bad habits and it is difficult to change the mindset later on."

Baughan calls for greater dialogue across departments but says that teachers' desire for boundary maintenance is "understandable. They get their sense of identity from their departments."

One possibility which is being rumoured at the moment is that HMI will encourage streamlining but dodge the flak by putting local authorities in the firing line, with an edict simply urging uniform progression from early years to eight subjects in S3 and S4. Local authorities would feel obliged to rationalise in order to comply.

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