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
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
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.
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.