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No novels in novel exam

Pupils can gain English exam pass without studying traditional books, plays or poetry.Pupils could soon be awarded the equivalent of a GCSE in English without having studied any novels, plays or poetry.

Instead of the canon of English literature, they would study practical use of English, which could include how language is used in travel brochures and marketing material.

The Btec course, equivalent to an A* to G-grade GCSE, would be available to pupils aged 14 upwards under plans being considered by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

The proposal comes after the reading skills of Britain's 15-year-olds were criticised this week, when the UK dropped from 7th to 17th in an international ranking. A separate study last week found that England's 10-year-olds had fallen from 3rd to 19th place.

Some may see the Btec as a solution to these disappointing results, as it is designed to motivate pupils turned off by traditional English courses and build functional skills.

But Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "It seems to me that promoting an English qualification that does not involve picking up books, plays or poems is losing sight of what the subject is about.

"If there is a case to answer that English teaching is not inspiring kids, I don't see how creating a new qualification would improve that."

A similar course in maths is already being tested in 50 projects across the country. The trust, which represents the vast majority of secondaries in England, is now looking at how it could be extended to other subjects.

It will discuss its plan with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Edexcel exam board and hopes to trial the English Btec in 2009.

David Crossley, the trust's director of achievement, said: "Every child has talent and aptitude and we need to find their strengths. This will help give students confidence to continue studying."

The Btec would not count towards a school's league table position for pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths. But Mr Crossley said that the situation should be reviewed.

"We have an odd situation where only GCSEs count," he said. The Btec qualifications would be designed to run alongside GCSEs, not replace them. It would also complement the diplomas, which will be offered from next year and will have a functional skills component.

From 2010, all pupils will have to pass separate tests in functional English, maths and ICT in order to attain a grade C or above at GCSE. The National Association for the Teaching of English said this would render the Btec unnecessary.

In the maths Btec, some pupils designed a Formula One racing car as a way of learning about probability, angles and equations.

The English course has not yet been drawn up, but it will focus on vocational applications. In travel and tourism, this could include newspaper articles and brochures.

Sir Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre, accused schools of creating cultural "apartheid" this week because they no longer instill a love of the arts.

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