Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Testing Times by Keren David

Please forgive me if I am a little distracted.  Today is a big day. My daughter, like thousands of other 15 and 16 year olds is sitting her English Language GCSE.

I’m feeling quite emotional, and it’s not just the stress and tension of my first stint as Exam Mum, ready with cups of tea, ice lollies, sympathy and encouragement.  It’s just that it’s hit me that this is an end of an era. All being well (fingers firmly crossed), this should be the end of her formal instruction in the English language.

She started her education at an international school, blessed with a beautiful well-stocked library and a curriculum (the International Baccalaureate primary years programme) which was blissfully free of formal tests and emphasised the enjoyment of both reading and writing. I remember her planning, writing, editing, illustrating and creating her own book (Ted Moss goes on Holiday) aged 6.

A few years later she started a writer’s notebook, in which she was encouraged to stick pictures, write down ideas, work on stories and poems.  She wrote books reviews and reports, learned to write a bibliography and when her English peers were sitting their Y6 SATS, co-wrote an extended presentation on art therapy, which she and her friend presented to an audience of parents and students.

 And then we came to England. English education turned into a utilitarian grind of instruction leaflets, business letters, writing down dialogue from soap operas and analysing articles about Cheryl Cole.  English literature hardly featured. I don’t blame her teachers for this. They were teaching towards two tests. English literature GCSE(last week) meant studying Of Mice and Men, some poems about conflict, an anthology of short stories and a few scenes from Macbeth.  English language GCSE(today)  will require her to analyse some pieces of non-fiction (a holiday brochure, perhaps, or a health and safety leaflet) and write some ‘journalism’ or articles for a website.

The exams are remarkable for their cynical lack of ambition  about how literature and language could and should be taught. They are unpopular with teachers, students, employers and universities.  They simultaneously bore and patronise students. Of all the subjects that my daughter is taking, English GCSE stands out as a beacon of mediocrity.

 A bit of history: back in the 1970s I took English Language O level. I had to answer comprehension questions on a piece of prose, and then had the choice of an essay or a story. I still remember enjoying writing my story, about a child’s attempts to marry off her mother (a recycled effort from earlier in the year. For English literature O level I studied A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (a bizarre book for teenage girls to study, featuring as it does the passion of a middle-aged English woman for a young Italian man, a story we found baffling and disgusting) and Flora Thompson’s From Lark Rise to Candleford, which was terribly dull.  I enjoyed English Literature A level, was sad that I couldn’t take English Language in the sixth form and left school for a job in journalism.

Meanwhile in Manchester my husband was at a secondary modern school where no one was allowed to take O level English Literature. Instead  he took the less-valued CSE qualification for which he had to write 15 book reviews, taken from a list of 40 books, and then take an exam answering questions about the books. The questions were not very difficult, as far as he can remember, and he was pleased to escape to the grammar school for A levels and thence to Oxford where he studied English literature.

Modern GCSEs came about as an attempt to blend CSEs and O levels, to end the pernicious two tier system that left so many kids with worthless qualifications. Once it featured coursework and exams, now we have the ridiculous controlled assessments, which require kids to compose and memorise essays then regurgitate them under exam conditions.

There are plans afoot to simplify the system and return to a single exam at the end of two years of study. But what should those exams test? I have a list.

-        an understanding of English grammar, punctuation and spelling. Give children the tools they need to use their own language.

-        A wide range of reading, including classic novels, plays, poetry and  contemporary books. An ability to review, analyse and discuss all types of literature.

-        A greater emphasis on creative and imaginative writing.  If you forget how to use your imagination at the age of 12,you lose an important skill.

-        An ability to express yourself clearly and thoughtfully, weighing and using facts which you do not make up. (I am incandescent that GCSE English requires children to write 'journalism' with no facts on which to base their reports,leaving them no choice but to conjure quotes and statistics out of the air. Look at the Leveson enquiry to see where that sort of thinking leads)

My daughter’s chance to have this sort of education is over (ahem. Fingers crossed). She didn’t even consider studying English for A level, preferring a blend of science and social science.  I hope that one day when school is just a distant memory she’ll rediscover her interest in writing and reading.  
In the meantime I’m extremely proud of her, whatever her results, and to everyone taking English today I wish you the best of luck.


Sue Purkiss said...

Very sobering, and very true. I used to teach English. The syllabus was never perfect, but it all went badly wrong when they decided continuous assessment wasn't to be trusted, and examinations became far more important. But there was a lot more to it than that, and you sum it up very well.

Joan Lennon said...

Such a stressful time - my heart goes out to everyone, participants and loving spectators alike!

JO said...

My thoughts with you - and every other family going through this.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. My son, in Year 10, reads widely, and is writing his second novel. Yet he finds English in school utterly dull - lessons in which a poem is put on a whiteboard and annotated by the teacher. This is copied down by the class. That's the lesson. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't want to do English at A-Level. My daughter, meanwhile, has been sad to find on arrival at secondary school that creativity happens less and less in English lessons. Worse, that 'doing some writing' is still seen as virtual punishment by teachers! 'Be quiet or you'll have to do some writing'? What's that about?!
Hope your daughter does well and comes creatively out the other side!

catdownunder said...

One of Australia's foremost poets actually advised me against further study of "English". I have never regretted taking her advice.

Penny Dolan said...

Good wishes to all those doing exams just now.

But oh how my heart grieves over what's being said here. Coupled with the fact that in primary schools children's literacy books often have the piece of writing stuck on one page, opposite a pasted in tick sheet where they can tick something like "What I have achieved in this piece of writing." eg. I know how to use capital letters and full stops. Tick. I have used extended sentences. Tick. I have used paragraphs. Tick. It is a wicked - in the perniciously evil way - curriculum.

And all those blooming imaginary letters just because the letter structure is easy to mark?

And writing letters and articles without any research when they are at secondary school?

Am weeping. (Gradgrind is chortling.) Wasn't this once called business studies? Oh, oh, oh!

adele said...

This is so depressing! How can a fifteen year old be studying "a few scenes from Macbeth?" It's robbing children of their literary heritage quite apart from anything else. We read Macbeth in its entirety when we were 12 at school and most of us adored it. I am, however, very old. This makes me feel much older.

Keren David said...

They studied Macbeth in bits and pieces, in order to write about it for a controlled assessment in which they also had to cover two or three poems about conflict. As her teacher said to me 'No one would choose to teach English literature like this.' The school did take them to see the play though.

Emma Barnes said...

Like Adele, it's the "scenes from Macbeth" that gets me. Only extracts - at GCSE?

I don't remember my own O levels being that inspiring but did at least read the whole of Twelfth Night!

Emma Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stroppy Author said...

This is all horrendous and students, teachers and parents should be jumping up and down objecting to it! It doesn't have to be like this. My daughter did GCSEs last summer. She read the whole of Romeo and Juliet - no faffing about with scenes (which is just laziness on the part of the school - they are teaching to the exam when they could just teach the text). She certainly did a lot less than I did at O and A level, but she enjoyed it and chose to continue to AS level. This year (AS) she did The Great Gatsby (all of it), The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Slyvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Nineteen Eighty-Four and some creative writing (all in two terms).

It looks as though rather a lot depends on the exam board/syllabus the school has chosen. Why are the teachers jumping into the hell-bound OCR handcart rather than refusing to teach like this? Is it because schools are so big on obedience they have forgotten how to object to things? I think SB's syllabus was Welsh - we are in Cambridge. The reason the college chose it was because of its assessment methods.

madwippitt said...


Keren David said...

I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that schools are judged on how many kids they can get past the magic 'C' boundary in English, Maths and Science. For many schools that means teaching to the test and picking the most predictable exam board.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

keren your list about what an exam should contain is excellent both rigorous and stimulating. I run creative writing sessions at museums and art galleries and we are finding the take up is less at ks3 because the pressure on teachers and the difficulty they have in getting out of school. I hope it improves.

maryom said...

Suffering from the 'bits of' school of teaching here too. Bits of Wuthering Heights, supported by watching the film (!) and bits of Romeo+Juliet (we took the teen to see it performed which she said but 'the bits' in context. Such a weird method of teaching.