Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Higher English reappraised - again

Joanna Blythman had a sensible post in Sunday's Herald about the latest flurry in Higher English exam circles. Ever since the last change - when Higher Still appeared and drastically reduced what was actually externally assessed - I've felt the lack of any chance for students who wrote well to capitalise on their ability. It was never the same merely to be told by your teacher that you had reached the required standard to sit the exams - for that, in essence, was what happened. It somehow devalued the whole process to have the person who was teaching you say "yes, all right - you've made it". Even when the folio of the previous system was being prepared for external assessment, it was possible for the teacher to collude in raising the standard by direct interference, and it was presumably to remove that suspicion that the folio system was changed, but it still left the teacher with the say-so on what stage the candidate had reached and deprived the student of the stimulus to show off in an exam. Even after several years of retirement I have a couple of ringbinders filled with the excellent writing of past pupils - kept to encourage others to reach the same standard, or to give ideas to the faltering - and I can still remember the content of many of the essays.

Actually I'd like to go much further back. I agree with Neil who tweeted a wee while ago that he'd like to see the Report brought back to Higher English. This involved the student in assimilating several documents, including sometimes a graph, on a given topic, and then writing a cohesive report which conveyed the facts as contained in the material. Creative it was not. It called for understanding, organisation and the ability to write clearly and dispassionately - skills which are actually more useful to the majority of students than the ability to write a description of an emotion or analyse a metaphor. It gave the less creative, clever mathematician a chance to excel in one area of English, and had an obvious spin-off in other subjects like Modern Studies.

To me, Higher English recently has become less stimulating for pupils and teachers as texts became more prescriptive and the need to stop and examine halted the flow of the year. There seemed to be less space to develop the realisation that if you could do one area of analysis you could do any others, and that to write well was exciting and challenging and a cumulative process. I grant that the all-or-nothing exam at the end of the session struck terror into some pupils - but why is that such a bad thing? Are we all going to sail through life without such moments? Some chance.

I'd suggest that if - as Blythman suggests - there has been a dilution in the standard of text studied, and if - as I know is the case - too many teachers concentrate on the parrot-learning of the formula which will produce a passable critical essay at the expense of a real understanding of how a writer's craft works, then it's the training of teachers we need to look at. Maybe any teacher entrusted with teaching Higher needs to be regularly appraised and sent for retraining if he falls short of the standard our best pupils deserve. Maybe the time currently spent on internal assessment would be better spent exploring a new poem - pupils and teacher together, unprepared and excited by what they can find. On one-to-one discussion of how to bring writing alive, while others write on, absorbed in what they create. On showing teachers what is possible, and firing them with the need to share it. And then, after nine months, examining the results in the old-fashioned, open-ended way with the excitement of a real end-product to all this engagement and effort.

Bit like having a baby, really.


  1. "Maybe any teacher entrusted with teaching Higher needs to be regularly appraised and sent for retraining if he falls short of the standard our best pupils deserve." He? H(i)mmm!

  2. And who was it, pray, who was moaning about non-gender-specific language? I rest my case.

  3. Do only male teachers fall short & need retraining, then? Plurals cure all (and stop the moaning of sumphs in immemorial elms)!!

  4. Nah - I just enjoy winding chaps up!

  5. Consider me coiled and ready to strike. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  6. I'd agree about bringing back the report! The assessment for one of the college courses I teach is a report and the students have absolutely no idea how to write one.

    Reports are the bread and butter of the working world. I can't believe they were ever removed from the Higher exam.