English Language GCSE – Narrowing the Horizons of the Next GenerationJuly 10, 2012
Most of the material in this blog was pointed out to me, or sent to me, by English teachers. I won’t mention any names as they may not wish to be associated with the opinions here, but they should all feel free to claim credit in the comments afterwards.
One of the subjects most at risk of having its content hollowed out is English. This is because we apply our knowledge of the English language all the time and so virtually any activity, no matter how mindless, can be presented as an attempt to practise English “skills” and be used to replace the actual teaching of useful content. We see this in the reaction to phonics tests, and proposed grammar tests at primary school. It is claimed that learning definite knowledge, such as what letters mean or what the parts of a sentence are, will distract from more important skills and dispositions like being able to express oneself or having a fondness for books.
However, we also see this at GCSE. Because there is a separate English literature GCSE it is argued that there is no reason for the English language GCSE to rise above mundane and trivial uses of the English language. The following three examples show this is the quite explicit outlook of three different exam boards.
Firstly from Edexcel, we have the (already widely reported ) controlled assessment on “Talent Television”. This assessment included such exemplary uses of English as the front cover of Heat Magazine and the Britain’s Got Talent Website and asked questions such as:
Write an article for a television magazine in which you describe your ideas for a new television talent show.
Write the script for a podcast aimed at young people in which you review a television talent show.
Secondly, we have the AQA Spoken Language Study. Among the options for the controlled assessment tasks we have such gems as:
Explore varieties of and attitudes to texting…
….Explore some of the similarities and differences between spoken conversation and web-based communication such as messaging, Twitter and Facebook.
Finally, from WJEC we have a unit on studying spoken language . There is some freedom to choose examples of spoken language, so what guidance is given for selection? What will ensure that students are analysing the best possible examples of spoken English?
Popular culture seems to offer the most engaging and interesting examples. E.g. interviews with people they admire or respect such as J.K.Rowling, Lady Gaga or Alan Sugar.
All of these tasks and guidance relate to assessments that count towards the exam. As a result, teachers have every incentive to spend a good number of lessons preparing students for work on these topics. Obviously, good teachers will find alternative tasks or find a way to teach proper content as well. But equally, bad teachers and bad managers will have every excuse to avoid challenging content and focus on dross.
I know from Twitter discussions following the “Talent Television” story that there will be those who simply refuse to see a problem with looking at such inauspicious examples of English. After all, they argue, English language is all about “skills”, not content, and so studying the mediocre and the inane may develop those skills just as much as studying the best of what has been thought or written (which has its rightful place in the separate English literature exams).
However, to accept this argument is to ignore one of the most important purposes of education: to broaden horizons and to open up the world to those you are studying. Every time students are directed towards things they see everyday than an opportunity has been wasted to direct them to something better. If there are skills that can only be developed by applying them to the ordinary and commonplace then we have to ask whether they are skills worth developing. But if this is not enough to convince you (and I know there are those who refuse to acknowledge the problem even when it is staring them in the face) then can you at least answer this question: where was the consultation and debate where it was decided that children need to be able to discuss the cover of Heat Magazine and analyse an interview with Lady Gaga? Which elected politician argued for it in parliament? Which parents were asking for it? Even if this all seems fine to you, you have to admit that this is not acceptable to many, and that the decision hardly seems to have been made after listening to, and considering, those objections.