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Feeling the big squeeze

Anne Barnes fears the new GCSE syllabuses could become restrictive.

Bewilderment has been the main response to the new GCSE English and English literature syllabuses. Many teachers feel they have barely had time to sort out their approach to teaching their students how to perform in an end-of-course, timed exam and have certainly not had time, after only two full runs of the present syllabuses, to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching in relation to the grades those students achieve.

New demands mean new syllabus criteria. Although they were quite widely discussed when they came out last year, not all teachers were aware of them. The amount of literature required for English, both pre-20th century and 20th century, has therefore come as a shock to many. Students are now required not only to cover a range of genres but also to provide evidence for assessment of their work in each area. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority requires all English syllabuses to be precise in their demands for coverage of drama, prose, poetry, media, literature from other cultures and non-literary texts, in a way which was not so clearly specified before. In the exam papers there seems less room for original writing: candidates will be assessed on their ability to respond to particular types of texts.

In literature, similarly, the more elastic idea of "areas of study" has gone. Now, in most syllabuses, there is a straightforward and often quite narrow list of texts or an anthology compiled by the board. SCAA has ruled that there can be no generic questions and that the emphasis should be on comparison between texts. Many students who have covered the requirement for English will also have covered enough texts to set them up to do literature, but having visited so many different types of text for English, there may not be time to take on, for instance, a novel of any length. The wrong sort of teaching and exam questions could lead to superficial approaches or using shorter texts.

The tiering system may seem to be a common sense response to the problem of differentiating across the ability range, but it raises far more serious problems, particularly now that it has been tightened up for the new syllabuses. All the exam boards must now adopt the same system and there are two tiers only, A* to D and C to G. No slippage is allowed, so a candidate entered for the upper tier who fails to get a D will be rated as "Unclassified". This pressurises teachers to be sure they place each pupil in the appropriate tier and it is likely to force them into underestimating borderline CD candidates instead of always raising their expectations of them.

This will have increasing impact on styles of teaching. Many schools will feel compelled to decide more than two years in advance who to enter for which tier, and to stream at the end of Year 9. It may be possible to pick out really high flyers at any age, but it is absurd in the case of the average teenager.

The other strange thing about these syllabuses is that the weight given to reading and writing in coursework has been whittled down to 20 per cent of the whole exam although it remains the place in which some of the most important skills and responses are assessed. As a result of the syllabus requirements, the coursework folder for one board, for example, must give evidence for assessment for: personal and imaginative work, response to the media, work reflecting diverse cultures and response to Shakespeare. Another similarly requires original writing, response to media, Shakespeare and wider reading (on more than one text and including pre-20th century prose and one 20th century author). To be done properly this is a full two-year course in itself, making the timed examination paper almost superfluous. Other boards have similar lists and make various suggestions about how this should be put together to help plan a course. One board has produced a booklet with detailed suggestions for tasks and assignments, showing, perhaps, how important coursework is in assessment and how anxious examiners are for teachers to keep developing it.

But it is difficult to see how teachers can continue using the coursework folder to encourage and motivate pupils if it is not going to be as well rewarded as work done for the exams. Some coursework units can be used for both the English and English literature folders, but the range of work is compulsory for English alone and, together with the work for the exam papers, they may present a severe, inappropriate test for less able candidates or those for whom English is an additional language.

These syllabuses have had a very long gestation period. SCAA has been more prepared this time to question or reject any woolliness in interpreting the criteria. The time between the first syllabus appearing and the last being approved was long enough for the various boards to learn from each other, but the opportunity for new and original approaches - which is the basic reason for having five independent boards - has largely been missed. We all need to be aware that we may be drifting towards a more centralised system and to consider very carefully what is being lost.

NATE will be sending a summary of the syllabuses to its members and producing a discussion paper in time for the conference at Surrey University, April 1-4 Anne Barnes is general secretary of National Association for the Teaching of English.

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