In My Day

24/02/2020

At eight o’clock on Thursday night the Scottish Government released figures that showed that attainment in Higher level exams had fallen, in some subjects significantly. Political opponents were quick to suggest that this late hour when most journalists would be in bed or, at least, the pub was a cynical ploy to bury bad news. I think that unlikely. No politician would seriously imagine that news as explosive as this could be successfully interred without a full post-mortem. In the words of Grace Fields, “It’s dead but it won’t lie down”.

So, by Friday morning the word was out and splashed across the front pages and by Saturday it had earned a good few pages in the Glasgow Herald and, I imagine, The Scotsman. It may even have hit the Press And Journal. Lindsay Paterson, author of 2000’s “Crisis In The Classroom” was roped in to write an analysis of the failures of the Scottish education system but, to be fair and to his credit, he noted that this particular crisis has been a long time coming. 

Sure, there are problems with Curriculum For Excellence. For all its vaunted focus on Literacy, Numeracy, analysis of the errors Higher candidates are making in exams - especially in the Sciences - are associated with not understanding definitions of words and an aversion to answering calculation-based questions. Increasingly children are arriving in Secondary schools unable to read at a level below that which would have been expected when I started teaching. Maybe - is this heresy? - the Primary school curriculum is too crowded. Maybe - is that a stake and pyre I see assembled in the square? - the syllabus for the Broad General Education years that precede study for exams is too full of idealistic daydreams of young wide-eyed children ‘getting involved in their own learning’ without facing the truth that sometimes learning involves drudgery and hard work.

Then we get to the Senior Phase in Secondary schools - the years when students study for, and sit, their exams; including the Higher exams which have caused this stooshie - a word my spellchecker really doesn’t like. Here I can only speak for what has happened in my own subject - Chemistry - and in related subjects. For the Sciences and other subjects that are content-based and cumulative - subjects where knowledge and ideas are built up, one fact and idea upon another - a catastrophic decision was made to fundamentally change the structure of Secondary school education without fundamentally changing the exam structure.

Yes, I know I’ve argued this before. but I kind of like being the boring old drunk who lurks in the corner of the bar and regales the clientele with stories of how things were much better in my day. Back then study for exams started at the end of second year and we had two years to deliver O-Grade then Standard Grade. Now we have one year to deliver two courses - National 4 and National 5 - to prepare students to embark on Higher courses; often trying to teach both courses at the same time in the same classroom. If you can imagine a situation that is less likely to deliver effective learning please, please don’t share it with me. 

To entirely blame the changes wrought by Curriculum For Excellence for the problems in Scottish education, though, would be a mistake. Their roots go far deeper - as the fact that Paterson’s book was published nearly twenty years ago suggests. Other things have happened in the years since I started teaching. So let me wave my glass in the air and regale you with a few more ‘in my days’. 

In my day there were Subject Advisors - people employed by local authorities whose job it was, at times of curriculum change, to look for resources and examples of good practice that teachers could build on; to organise in-service provision and to read through the documentation that goes with curricular change and digest it and, cutting out all the crap, help teachers through the changes.

In my day every subject had its own Principal Teacher. When curricular changes were made each subject department had, at its head, a specialist in that subject who managed a few teachers. He, or she, had time to deal with disciplinary issues that came her, or his, way and still organise course materials, attend meetings, guide younger teachers and so much more. Now we have Principal Teachers of ‘Faculties’ (Yeah, let’s pretend we’re universities) and they are running themselves ragged and trying to keep up.

In my day things worked. In my day teachers didn’t wind up on their knees at the end of term yet our students still got good exam results. In my day I had time to think about the lessons I was preparing. In my day teachers were teachers - we didn’t spend our lives checking up on pupil attendance or responding to e-mails.

So I wave my glass once more. I offer one more ‘in my day’. But that day is gone. It will not come again, but it was great while it lasted.