Forget accountability - we should bring back the general paper

Or indeed revive the type of open-ended question typical of the University of Oxford’s past entry papers? Mark Steed thinks so, if only to intellectually liberate young people from the constraints of a high-stakes education system
31st January 2020, 12:03am
Is It Time To Bring Back The General Paper?


Forget accountability - we should bring back the general paper

Secondary education lost something important when the University of Oxford scrapped its entrance general paper in the mid 1990s.

The general paper encouraged an intellectual agility and quirkiness for which there is no equivalent outlet today. It was grounded in a philosophy of education that is now quite alien. Unlike other formal examinations, the general paper gave licence for candidates to challenge established norms, to take risks, to be unconventional and even witty. “What is courage? This is.” In two words, the candidate encapsulated all that the general paper stood for: it was the stuff of legends.

Answer three or four questions. Even the rubric portended intellectual anarchy. It was a clear statement that the essays written here were not about the accumulation of marks. Success was not dependent on meeting every aspect of the narrow criteria for an L5 answer dictated by a chief examiner. It was about making an impression; it was a time to show off. It was out of the box, not tick-box.

The general paper required a totally different approach to essay writing from that required at A level. When it came to subject essays, my teacher, Miss G, was a proponent of “the exam hall is the last place to start thinking” approach. She was old school. Her pedagogical method derived from the Oxford tutorial. She assumed that we had taken the time to get ourselves to a basic knowledge and understanding of “the text”, thus allowing lesson time to be spent getting up to scratch about relevant scholarly debates, honing arguments and our writing style.

In modern parlance, she gave a masterclass in flipped learning - although, no doubt, she would recoil from the term. When it came to subject essays, we needed to have such a command of the subject that we could cope with any question that the examiners could throw at us.

But the general paper was a different matter. It was designed to distinguish the Scholars from the Commoners. It required flair. It required mental agility. Above all, it required breaking down the silo thinking that comes from being taught in discrete subjects, and making connections between disparate ideas that we had come across in our sixth-form studies.

Discuss the concept of light in any way that you find interesting. It was my first attempt at a general-paper question. I reprised my meagre knowledge of the subject. As a prospective undergraduate theologian, I could draw confidently on a rich vein of Biblical imagery and metaphor; this was in stark contrast to the few residual memories of the optics unit of my O-level physics.

My answer was, at best, gamma minus. The long-suffering Miss G first demonstrated how to deconstruct the question, and then showed me how to go about answering it with the limited knowledge available to me: “You are missing an important aspect of the question. Whose concept of light is the more interesting? The theologian’s or physicist’s?”

It was a turning point; I was beginning to see the light. It wasn’t quite a Damascene conversion, however - that took rather longer.

And then there was the reading list. We did not have the easy access to the plethora of learning materials that young people have at their fingertips today. For us, there were no YouTube clips, TED Talks, iTunes U lectures, podcasts, online forums or discussion boards. We had books, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We were encouraged to look things up, to take interest in the etymology of words, to make connections. Above all, we were expected to read. To be educated was to be “well read”.

“You’re going up to university to read theology.” For Miss G, the reading clearly should have started years earlier, and I was late to the party. Her general-paper reading list focused on classical texts, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic and The Symposium, Shakespeare’s tragedies, Austen’s Emma, and so on. Looking back, I’m sure that she threw in Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in an attempt to get me to work through some connections between my religious studies and economics A levels.

I kept the list for years, well beyond my undergraduate days, occasionally ticking another one off. It is still work in progress: the journey to becoming “educated” is ongoing.

Freedom to roam

Perhaps one of its most important aspects was that the general paper gave an excuse for bright teachers and pupils to meet to kick around ideas - for old hands to dust off their intellectual boxing gloves and spar with would-be pretenders.

There is something liberating about education without the constraint of having to cover a set body of knowledge laid down in a syllabus (specifications were yet to be invented). By definition, there were no red herrings. Lessons could roam from topic to topic like one long word-association game.

It gave us the opportunity to fill in the inevitable gaps that came from choosing to study only three or four - often closely related - subjects at A level. It was a process of education in its purest form (from the Latin educere - “to draw out” ), canonised by Alan Bennett in the character of Hector in The History Boys.

Today, the need for a general paper-style education is greater than ever. Schools need to find time in the week to foster the ability to think laterally and in a multidisciplinary way. Perhaps the most significant deficiency of our present-day exam-focused A-level diet is that most students go through school without learning the simplest framework of the history of ideas. What proportion of sixth-formers is capable of completing the following task? Put these historic movements in the chronological order of their origin, name a key figure of each and write a short paragraph summarising the importance of each: the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the Renaissance.

It has been a great privilege over the past 20 years as a headteacher to be able to pull rank and bring together a group of the brightest sixth-formers with the broad excuse of preparing them for their Oxbridge entrance interviews. The aim of these gatherings has been to help the young people to refine their thinking and develop their ability to argue logically. If there is a curriculum, it is to introduce them to off-syllabus figures such as Freud (ego and id, dream analysis, Oedipus complex), Wittgenstein (language games), and Kuhn (philosophy of science), and to provide a coherent series of intellectual coat pegs on which they can hang any new concepts they encounter.

My opening discussion question each year is: In what ways can we connect the French Revolution with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species? There are obviously many answers to this question, but many sixth-formers struggle even with the basics. When was the French Revolution? Why was it important? When was On the Origin of Species published? Why was it important? This is not their fault. Most go through secondary school encountering little history between Henry VIII’s sixth wife and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

My question opens up debates about the different paths taken by Britain and France, their relative openness to the discussion and dissemination of radical and challenging ideas, as well as debates about the place of science and religion in society.

The sole survivor of the general-paper genre is the All Souls College fellowship exam, often described as the hardest in the world. Its questions give an insight into how the Oxbridge entrance papers might have evolved:

  • Should we bring back woolly mammoths from the dead?
  • “To photograph is to confer importance” (Susan Sontag). Discuss.
  • Can food be both sustainable and affordable?
  • Should we stop reading authors because of their political views?
  • Should Facebook and Google be required to pay money for the information they acquire about people?
  • Do you own your body?
  • Are there any unanswerable questions?

These address some of the most important issues facing contemporary society.

Undoubtedly, there will be some who consider that such questions should be confined to the debating society and are not the fundamental business of schooling. Others, all too aware of the constraints of budgets and the availability of teaching expertise, might see these as an unaffordable luxury.

But a school’s sixth-form curriculum should do more than enable students to pass exams on established bodies of knowledge, and qualify them for further study at university and a place in the workforce. It should also equip them to engage with a range of important questions facing society today and those that may arise in the future. Indeed, all A-level students should have the skills to be able to tackle any general-paper question thrown at them by the time they leave school.

Loosening the straitjacket

The scholarship and entrance general papers epitomised a more noble view of education, which stands in stark contrast to our utilitarian world of high-stakes assessment. Sadly, there is little space for teachers like Miss G any more: teachers who taught the subject in its fullness, with passing reference to “the sort of thing that might impress an examiner”. These teachers inspired and encouraged by passing on learning and standards that were not written down. Rather, they were acquired, as if by osmosis. “What I have received, I pass on to you” (I Corinthians xv, 3) - it was tradition at its very best.

Today, transparency and accountability have forced the publication of ever more narrowly written mark schemes. These have become a straitjacket that stifles pupil and teacher creativity, encourages standardisation and promotes the regurgitation of stock answers - and this at a time when we should be encouraging risk taking, innovation and problem solving.

Today, too much time is spent teaching exam technique and explaining what the examiner is looking for. Instead, we need to liberate young people to explore intellectually, to think and to argue. It is difficult to see how A level can go back to where it once was. But we need to make space in our sixth-form timetables to embrace a broader view of what it means to be an educated school leaver.

The time is ripe for the return of general-paper education. Discuss.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British school in Hong Kong, and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “Should we bring the woolly mammoth back from the dead?”

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