I’ve had an idea!

For a while now I’ve been increasingly disgusted at the way English language has been dumbed down as a GCSE subject. Really, what is the point of asking pupils to analyse leaflets for RNLI or websites about skateboarding? What’s the point of committing so much time and effort to teaching kids how to write like tabloid journalists?

I can see an argument for teaching English as a set of ‘functional skills’ but the Language GCSE isn’t even that. Leaflet analysis and persuasive writing are pointless as well as crass. The exam on which thousands of teachers waste thousands of hours teaching thousands of students how to pass is the bankrupt exercise in hoop-jumping, and I’m looking forward to seeing the back of it. (See this post from Katie Ashford for more horror.)

Now, I know the governments’ plans for the new English language GCSE to include “Unseen high-quality, challenging texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries” and I’m aware of the requirement that exam boards must avoid texts that are “essentially transient”. This is all to the good. But I still don’t really understand what our subject has become. This merely sounds like a watered down version of a literature exam.

It’s fascinating that English Language has achieved such preeminence at GCSE. It’s a non-subject with no body of knowledge, and bears little or no resemblance to the subject as taught at A level and beyond. The only part of the specification that had any connection to the subject studied at A level was the spoken language study, and that’s been axed! All we’re left with is wish-washy, generic reading and writing skills, which exam boards claim are transferable. (They’re not. If you’ve ever experienced the frustration of teaching analysis of non-fiction and then being stumped at pupils’ inability to transfer these skills to analysing poetry you’ll know exactly what I mean.) What’s more, after GCSE, Language suddenly loses its sparkle. Even though the A level in English Language is an actual subject with a unique body of knowledge, no one’s really interested in it. English Literature comes to the fore as the qualification of choice. Just ask any admissions tutor at a Russell Group university.

So, if I was King of English, I’d do away with language altogether. English teachers would teach a combination of literature and grammar, and other subject teachers would be responsible for explicitly teaching the genres of writing which occur within their domains.  So, for instance, science teachers would teach pupils how to argue and challenge aspects of science, explain scientific events and how to organise information scientifically; history teachers would teach pupils how to record, argue and explain. And so on. That this doesn’t happen systematically as things stand is a bit lamentable; the language of our subjects is interwoven with their content. How can it be sensible to avoid teaching pupils to write like subject specialists? (Click here for genres in science, history & geography)

Sadly, my benevolent dictatorship is some way off, and no one really cares what I think. But I have spotted an interesting possibility. The government’s efforts to shore English Literature as a GCSE subject may have inadvertently undermined the primacy of English Language. This TES article reports the government’s new plans for Literature to count double in the new Progress 8 accountability measure.

Bethan Marshall, chair of National Association for the Teaching of English, thinks this is a very good thing. She says, “This is a very good thing.” She goes on to say:

“Literature counts for a great deal and would have been seriously under threat,” the senior lecturer in English and education at King’s College, London said. “Now that they have equated language and literature then [schools] may concentrate on doing both.”

Dr Marshall points out that under the previous proposals

“Schools might have entered them for the literature but not bothered teaching it. Now that it counts if you have a child who is very good at reading but not so good at language I think they might focus on the literature. I think the balance is more equal.”

Well, couldn’t it now also be the case that we could enter students for ‘the language’ and not bother teaching it? How great would that be? No longer would we be shackled to the pointless tedium of teaching to a very poor test.

And if we really put some thought into this and got the teaching of writing genres right across the curriculum then as long as the exam wasn’t as warped out of shape as the bafflingly inaccessible current AQA offering, pupils probably could do well in it without any specific teaching to the test!

Just a thought.

I’m sure the confederacy of dunces will see fit to stamp out this possibility, but Oh! What marvellous and delicious irony!

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