The end of standard grades

By Kate Smith

LET’S BID a fond adieu to the Standard Grade, cast aside by Scottish government education secretary Fiona Hyslop last week. Those seven, eight or nine exams and their predecessors, the O Grades, were entirely overrated and put great expectations on feckless youth. It might be the light at this time of year but I still have “taking O Grade/Standard Grade” nightmares. Trying to get through a locked door in the gym to take my French O Grade. It bears no Freudian analysis since in my case, it really happened. I had the wrong building.

What Standard Grades taught you at 15 was both how to sit exams and play with the Plasticine of knowledge. The importance of turning up at the right room even. Their noble purpose is, of course, much more serious than this – to give a good general foundation in all disciplines; arts, sciences, humanities and enables the selection of the Standard Grades big bruiser of a brother, the Higher Grade, on which futures were made or broken.

But without the marks counting towards final grades or university admittance, what O Grades and Standard Grades did, was allow you to fail without wrecking your life. Or to fail successfully. That getting it wrong is part of getting it right. They were useful life lessons.

The O Grade/Standard Grade curriculum was the introduction of the outside world to us all, in my case a 15-year-old who had never stepped a foot outside Scotland. The world in all its spectacular variegated exotic colours opened up to us, mapped out in pithy bite-sized summaries.

Taught to us in draughty prefab huts in the potholed concrete playground of an Edinburgh comprehensive in poverty zone Sighthill we covered the globe from end to end and glimpsed at the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, the militarism of Ancient Rome, the cooking pots of Skara Brae, inside the rim of volcanoes as well travelling through the millenniums in HG Wells’s Time Machine.

From my history O Grade (A band 1) I learned many things. Where France and Germany are. Names of first world war battles such as Neuve Chappelles and the terrible days of the Somme. Names that sounded so beautiful.

The mysterious black hand of Serbia and that the stunningly fateful coincidence of the licence plate of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand (good name for a band maybe) was assassinated carried the date of armistice. 11-11-18. I’m not even sure that’s true now. From O Grade chemistry (C band 8) I learned the organic building blocks of all life and that, as a general rule, it’s best not drop potassium in your bath.

From physics (C band 8), what was in space and how to make a prisoner-of-war radio. From biology (A band 1), what the inside of a bull’s eye looks like, how trees work and theories that underpinned the bloody rules of the playground, Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.

From art (not recommended for O Grade) I learned how to look from different perspectives and that I was terrible at pottery.

And painting and why Ian Trotter wasn’t allowed to use the scalpels. From maths (A band 1) I learned it was just a big set of calculations to measure spatial rhythms, just like music. Calculations I decided I couldn’t be bothered to actually learn although it all seemed quite interesting in a tepid sort of way.

From music (not recommended for O Grade) I listened to our teacher play music from adverts on his grand piano as he shouted out the names of the composers in his dignified educated Polish accent. Hamlet Cigars by JS Bach in his Orchestral Suite in D. Old Spice by Carl Orff in his beautiful work Carmina Burana. Hovis bread? That’s Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Also in my auditory memory is the less melodic slightly hysterical scream by the rattled French assistant “ECOUTEZ ET REPETEZ’ as Adrian Harrison threw a chair at the closed window (French B band 3: 1 paper of 5 missed).

It was a fabulously ramshackle education.

The O Grade/Standard Grade gave you the chance to experiment and innovate with your new-found knowledge, relatively unpenalised, which Highers just didn’t.

My O Grade strategy consisted of smokescreening my sparse and disconnected facts with sweeping statements: “DH Lawrence was massively influenced by Shakespeare’s The Tempest” or “One can only wonder if Kaiser Wilhelm had not had a shrivelled arm, if world history would have taken a less tragic course”.

This strategy of preposterousness failed me in my Highers, where joined-up facts and insightful argument instead of incessant name-dropping and half-baked but enthusiastic analysis were needed “Mussolini was feckless but Hitler wasn’t”. (Higher History Fail compensatory O Grade at C).

The brief 11 months from Standard Grade to Highers was a journey that involved jumping several large leaps of learning style very quickly. Speed learning, really. This is the reason the sensible decision has been taken to call “time” on Standard Grades. The restructuring plan is to allow learners to start Highers early and have longer to study them, over 18 months, rather than the so-called “two-term dash” to Highers. Learners will also not make subject choices until S3, rather than the current S2. These plans will go out for discussion and may be implemented in five years.

So this is a requiem to the Standard Grade. As Hyslop rightly said, they have served Scotland well. It was my O Grades and the teachers who taught them that gave me a lifelong love of learning and a dangerous level of knowledge on many subjects. From the Aleutian indigenous people to zoology. Only last week I was thinking about the Tolpuddle martyrs.  Bull’s eye