English Language GCSE – Narrowing the Horizons of the Next Generation

July 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.


  1. Orwell directly links the use of English and the ability to think clearly in his essay Politics and the English Language. Not teaching good use of English is likely to be affecting students abilities in other subjects.

  2. I taught English for longer than I haven’t. The “skills” lobbyists who are so keen to justify the kinds of fraudulent tasks your sources describe, need to understand that if there is one skill businesses are crying out for…it is the ability to write something that makes sense. One of the negative side effects of word processing applications (as with mental arithmetic and calculators) has been that fewer and fewer people are able to put any kind of articulate sentence together on a blank page.

    I was not at all prepared to find in business, how rare it was for anyone to begin any kind of writing from scratch. There is something akin to fear amongst many adults who in every other respect are perfectly successful, about writing anything unless they have a template or draft of some kind to work on first.

    So much for the creativity those peddling “21st Century Skills” imagine they are encouraging.

    • What you have written is so true. It is also very sad that children are also less frequently expected to do truly creative and imaginative story-writing.

      English Language exams used to include comprehensions, formal or informal letter-writing and always a chance to write a story. Apart from in the comprehension, one of the main skills needed was being to be able to organise one’s ideas, through overall planning, the use of paragraphs and the simple framework of an introduction, middle bit and a conclusion.

      So many children are at a loss when asked to write a large piece of writing, because they ‘don’t know how to start’. This is for the simple reason that they don’t get enough practice and spend too much time on more piecemeal projects such as those in the original post, which do not stretch their imaginations at all.

  3. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with dealing with the sort of things you refer to. I teach English as a second language, to adults, and find that they often ask questions about things they’ve seen on magazine covers, or heard on TV. So these are real uses of English that need to be studied. They should simply be a part of the syllabus, however, not its all, and should not be allowed to supercede more traditional English teaching.

    • A very different situation, surely?

      • I’m not sure I see what you mean.

  4. The GCSE specs and the National Curriculum stipulate that all content should be of high quality. Yes, a magazine or a web page might be employed, but it has to meet a high standard. Why can’t we have children looking at the front cover of the Economist the week after September 11, or the BBC web site of that day? The low culture that the exam boards are offering are obvious ploys to lure teachers into selecting them to keep kids’ attention. Make things fun. Unfortunately, the kids see through this and they would rather have some challenging content than this crap.

  5. I discovered last week that most of the school’s English text book allowance of $3,000 for 850 students was spent on buying class sets of two texts – one was a graphic novel (see comic). If students were expected to read serious books there would need to be a serious allocation of funds to buying books.
    It has been a long time since such a thing has happened. For the past 20 years money and resources have been moved to technology.
    The photocopiers and data projectors burn bright, student’s faces stare into the glow of their laptops. Videos, games and googled answers are pervasive.
    Adults who don’t read books are unlikely to think it is important that their children should read books. It seems the days of the book are passing.Click.

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