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'It's a tragedy that we pay such slavish attention to exams criteria'

We need to broaden our teaching and let go of over-engineered schemes of work, writes one head of English and drama

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We need to broaden our teaching and let go of over-engineered schemes of work, writes one head of English and drama

If it’s actually true that there are schools teaching Macbeth for five years, as stated at one of this Easter’s union conferences, it’s an academic tragedy and one that needs instant intervention. Even allowing for hyperbole in this, GCSE has been increasingly over-dominant. For some years, it has been encroaching on the last term of Year 9. Now schools have come under fire from those in charge of boards that produce the progress tests that are now colonising Year 8 and Year 7.

Back in the autumn, when I was meeting colleagues in my trust, we were acknowledging a problem – not just confined to English and English literature – that courses were larger so needed more time. At the same time, the message from other colleagues was that Ofsted would be taking a dim view of schools that did shorten key stage 3 and start pupils on their GCSE journey too soon.

Educational change wouldn’t be quite so daunting if the stakes were not so high in terms of Progress 8, as teachers would feel enabled to teach some parts of texts more lightly than others to give due prominence to the most significant events.

But in their growing anxiety to support their students and their school, teachers are going down the constricting road of micro-planning to cover every aspect of the criteria. It’s hardly inspiring, although the constant practice and attention to detail could give the appearance – and possibly the reality – of a text well-covered.

The microscopically detailed schemes and lesson plans are extremely labour intensive if planned from scratch; the safer, more compliant option is to download “resources” from the exam board websites. The criteria passed down from Ofqual have already been fleshed-out and shaped into specifications and examination papers.

Companies that are part of the exam board “family” produce lesson sequences to tie in directly with every strand of the questions that are likely to be asked. What could be more reassuring to hesitant teachers having to rush through another curriculum change? Especially when each time the specifications change the criteria become more numerous and the combination of assessment objectives more complicated.

'A travesty of education'

It’s a triumph for the regulators and the exam boards; and a travesty of education.

Of course, Ofsted is right to focus on the curriculum. But it is a little late in the day. The accountability framework is so very nearly strangling wide-ranging enquiry, because teachers and schools become afraid to take risks. In attributing so much credence to results, the hard data of education, the regulator has initiated the culture of over-compliance. After all, who can criticise teachers for constantly demonstrating direct relevance to the new GCSE criteria – even for pupils as young as 11? This is what has spawned the stultifying practice of which Ofsted is so critical.

Key stage 3 has become for some schools a dress rehearsal for GCSE exams. There is nothing wrong in preparing pupils for the kinds of academic thinking and complicated materials they will encounter at the end of secondary school. What we need to consider is how we do that. We need to restore the emotional as well as the intellectual relevance of literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, to give education meaning and relevance.

Instead of constantly revisiting the set texts, it’s better to teach the skills more broadly across more numerous texts. In the case of Shakespeare, we teach three plays and don’t expect a rigorous literature essay every time a piece of work is set. We look for what is appropriate to the pupils’ age and ability. By building an appreciation of Shakespeare across the range of comedy and tragedy, a more flexible response can be nurtured, based on broader knowledge. Teaching Shakespeare, and concentrating on dramatic techniques, we teach plays as a genre.

We don’t wish Shakespeare to be problematic in the pejorative sense of being too difficult, but do want pupils to engage with the ethical debates; for example, the treatment of Shylock.

There is time to play with puns and malapropisms in Much Ado About Nothing and to throw in some spoonerisms for good measure through improvised dramatic stories. Illustrating metaphors in Romeo and Juliet helps to crystallise meanings prior to evaluating how well they convey complex and profound realisations.

The direction of travel has to include the emotions and senses as well as the intellect. Now I’m not about to suggest a return to learning styles, but the use of some drama techniques to investigate the way in which the verse works could make the play more memorable and show up changes in rhythm affecting the meaning, in an approach being trialled by a member of the department, who has been following a Teaching Shakespeare course this year.

And, as she informed me, research shows that the most significant factor in successful teaching of Shakespeare is the teacher and his or her enthusiasm. This was self-evident in the animated way she spoke about what she had learned from her course. Useful as exam board webinars have been, feedback from an enthusiastic delegate is more inspiring.

So if we are to provide education rather than training, if pupils are to engage with and respond perceptively to complex texts, then we need to broaden the teaching base, let go of the over-engineered schemes of work and reduce the slavish attention to examination criteria. Because the teacher is the most significant factor in the classroom, we need to invest in more subject-based training. Yes, there is a place for learning how to answer exam questions and, yes, it’s time-saving and reassuring to have scheme-builders handed down from the assessment experts. But it’s time we learned where assessment ends and education begins.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama at a school in the south of England and a member of the National Association for the Teaching of English’s Post-16 committee. The 55th NATE annual conference, "So Many Voices, So many Worlds", is in Birmingham in June

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