English teachers are “wasting time” by having to teach “large chunks of material” to fill in gaps in their pupils’ knowledge which should have been taught in history or religious education, a curriculum expert has said.
Christine Counsell highlighted English teachers having to teach 16th-century history to prepare their pupils for Shakespeare, as well as one school where students studied Animal Farm for GCSE even though they had no knowledge of the Russian Revolution.
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Ms Counsell is a consultant who used to deliver the history PGCE at the University of Cambridge, and she now sits on Ofsted’s curriculum advisory group.
Addressing the CurriculumEd conference on Saturday, she said: “Sometimes I find that some leaders haven’t asked really basic questions about why there is such an enormous [workload] covering GCSE content.
She highlighted the example of a school "years ago" where a senior leader was “desperately worried about his English literature at GCSE”.
“They were doing Animal Farm. He said: 'We chose Animal Farm because we thought it was an accessible text.' I thought, OK, there’s a number of mistakes here.
“I asked the obvious question which was: have they studied the Russian Revolution? Did you do the Russian Revolution at key stage 3?… And he said, ‘well I don’t know.’”
“The time you have to take in English literature GCSE to teach stuff, to go over Animal Farm is very, very time consuming, and there are certainly things actually you should take for granted.”
Ms Counsell said this example of disjointed curriculum planning was part of a broader problem, which was piling workload onto teachers.
“The most obvious place where this goes wrong is preparation for English literature GCSE. The hours I see poor English teachers wasting time teaching large chunks of material, such as the characteristics of the 16th century, 19th-century London when teaching Shakespeare or Dickens.
“You try understanding Cecil Day Lewis’ beautiful poem Walking Away without understanding the Trinity, or you try understanding Carol Anne Duffy’s poem War Photographer without knowing about transubstantiation, you’re completely lost.
“It’s a very big task I think for an English teacher, to not only be a history teacher, but they have to be a RE teacher.”
Ms Counsell added: “Strong history, RE, music and art is in my view one of the most fundamental ways to tackle the effects of disadvantage in lower attainment GCSE.”