What do we mean by a good education? It’s not the same as being intelligent of course. An educated young person has skills they can take with them into the world. But should these include reasonable fluency in a modern language, an understanding of the sciences, maths, some knowledge of literature and history? Or, in this age of easy fact-finding on the internet does an educated person mean: a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor, as Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has it? The Scottish government is wrestling with the implementation of this curriculum, which was intended to build on the concept of the “democratic intellect”, a generalist approach favouring interdisciplinary study. But how is it working in practice?
There was an interesting article in online magazine Sceptical Scot last week by the principal of George Heriot’s in Edinburgh Cameron Wyllie in which he reported a doubling of of the number of parents trying to get their children into the school at Senior 3. There were 45 applicants to S3 at GH this year after a record high of 25 in 2015. He said that this picture was being replicated at other independent schools in the city. Not big numbers perhaps, but Senior Three is not a traditional entry point for Edinburgh’s independent schools. Places are as rare as hens’ diamante scarf pins. Adam Smith himself might have trouble getting into a Merchant Company school age 14.
It is not as if the Scottish economy is going through a boom time either. The decision to pay school fees represents a real financial sacrifice for many of the families involved, and it may be worth exploring what is motivating this upsurge. Wyllie reports that it is largely due to concerns about the Curriculum for Excellence limiting the number of exams that can be taken at age 16.
John Swinney, the new Education Secretary, has announced that state schools will be compelled to move to offering a broad syllabus in S1 to S3 without exams, followed by a one year National Five course.
One of the reasons some state schools may have been pushing back on this hitherto is that making the exam course only one year long means that the maximum number of subjects is five or six, instead of eight as it used to be.
One of the consequences of this is likely to be that the number of students taking for instance a modern language to an exam at aged 16 drops even further and it is already at at a historic low. In 2015 the number taking modern languages at National 5 almost halved from the number taking it at standard grade. The Scotsman reported that over two years, French dropped by 47 per cent, German by 48 per cent and Chinese languages by 15 per cent. Those numbers are pretty shocking, and it was falling from a long downward curve. This will not help Scots to take advantage of opportunities to work; study; travel in the European Union or beyond.
I made some enquiries about this and it appears that Scotland’s education quangos do not analyse, track or publish stats on what percentage of Scottish high school pupils sit a modern language qualification. This seems all of a piece with the messy implementation of the whole CforE. What is the point of having an education policy at all if you don’t monitor the effects of it?
Scotland’s private schools already submit a disproportionate number of candidates in SQA language exams. Thats likely to rise under this new regime It may well be the case with sciences also. No one seems to be monitoring that either.
But surely this will not serve clever Scots from all backgrounds who are aiming for a place at one of the country's top universities? St Andrews etc can’t be blamed for not filling language courses with state school pupils if they don’t have the qualifications.
It may be helpful to move away from too much testing for younger children. But 14 and 15 years olds are not babies. Many of them are able to work and study at that age and some may relish the opportunity to do so. The deadline of preparing for an exam can provide the motivation to study hard and that can be rewarding. At age 18, pupils will be competing for uni places with students from all over the world. Dumbing down will do no favours to bright young Scots.
A teacher friend is dismayed by the four “capacities” of the C forE. “Confident individuals, responsible citizens. It’s what they should be anyway”, he argues. “The democratic intellect means more than that. It means get smart, but don’t flaunt it.”