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The wasted years of early secondary

I read with interest in The TES Scotland two weeks ago the report on Garnock Academy's experiment in starting exam course options in the January of S2.

It's a very fervent debate: much as Brian McNaught, the headteacher, champions the changes as innovative and beneficial, John Hodgart, principal teacher of English, is opposed to such young pupils embarking on National Qualifications courses.

Obviously, there are widespread levels of dissatisfaction with S1-S2 courses. The 5-14 curriculum is regarded as pretty well a dead horse, although we persist in flogging it. Take, for instance, the religious and moral education document, a throw-back to a previous age of ardent Christian observance; yet HMI expects us to use it. These 5-14 guidelines are just paper tigers. They appear to have bite but actually, when prodded, they are toothless.

The truth of the matter is that most S1-S2 pupils, Scotland-wide, are woefully under-challenged and, in many cases, depressingly unmotivated.

Individual schools may make some minimal effort to tackle this problem but there has been zero leadership from the Scottish Executive or local authorities on this one.

Little wonder, then, that the remedy would appear to be to sprinkle on the fairy dust of National Courses and, hey ho, open sesame, a solution. But what kind of system encourages children to embark on career-loaded courses at such a young age? Many of the senior students I teach struggle to make subject choices for university, not at all surprisingly in a culture which encourages diversity on the one hand and a quick fix solution on the other.

But, frankly, where will it all end? National Courses in S2? Highers in S4? Will 16-year-old students be sent to higher education establishments in order to compensate for the widening gap at the end of S6?

Just transfer the problem from the beginning to the end of secondary school. Quite apart from anything else, I don't actually buy the theory that it is effective to take longer over studying for Highers. Evidence from my own Higher psychology students suggests that a quick and interesting march through a Higher course is much more productive than a tedious stroll over two years. Pupils respond positively and dynamically to a lively pace.

As far as I am aware, there is no substantive evidence to conclude that pupils who start National Courses early will accrue long-term benefits, in terms of sustained academic achievements or emotional intelligence. The phenomenon of diving into national examination mode is a serious threat to meaningful change with regard to the current early secondary school curriculum. It's a pity that it is taking an interminably long time for this penny to drop.

Naturally, no one in the high places of education wants us to dwell on this fact because we may just rebel over the pitiful excuse for a meaningful curriculum in the first two years of secondary. It doesn't matter how many buzz-words we trot out - the fact remains that most pupils leave primary 7 as eager little beavers and swiftly migrate into unmotivated, thwarted blobs of underachievement.

So we can choose to pour plaudits on these schools which are forging ahead with plans just to hop, skip and jump over most of S1-S2 to a brave new world of a narrower curriculum and success measured by exam grades. Or we can call for a wider debate on what we want out of S1-S2 for our pupils.

Whatever has been murmured about these pupils underachieving in recent years, we have yet to collectively put our cards on the table and declare our hand. And, before someone pops up to say that schools such as Garnock Academy are leading the way in stimulating debate, yes, I do know what you mean. But in another, quite distinct, way, they are fudging the issue.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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