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Simply more complex

Arthur Parker sees no cause for celebration in the new GCSE English syllabuses

GCSE English syllabuses for the 1998 examinations are currently landing with a dull thud in schools and colleges throughout England and Wales. Heads of English will be wooed by the GCSE examining groups, and in theory market forces will enable "consumers" to exercise choice.

But I suspect that this suggestion will be greeted with a hollow laugh by most teachers of English. More likely reactions will be: disbelief, that this is the new "simplified" key stage 4; apprehension, about motivating weaker pupils to meet the new requirements; and frustration, that we seem to have taken a further step away from consensus.

After three years of turmoil over tests at 14, why does the assessment of English look likely to prove contentious once again? If coursework limits formed the main topic of debate when key stage 4 English was introduced, one might have anticipated that on this occasion it would be the new tiering arrangements. However, the surprise item in the revised criteria was undoubtedly the long list of reading content to be assessed (as opposed to appearing in the curriculum).

In fact the problem of examining an over-prescriptive reading content had been waiting to surface since the English Order was revised in 1993. Six distinct assessment demands are made by the criteria for GCSE English; a Shakespeare play; at least one author from the national curriculum pre-1900 list; a "major" post-1900 author; text(s) from other cultures; non-fiction and media texts. Testing all this reading has somehow to be fitted in two hours of examination and two or three pieces of coursework (assuming that a similar space is left to assess a range of writing).

The various solutions to this say more about the ingenuity of syllabus constructors than about the principles of valid and reliable English examinations. Given the continued restriction of written coursework to 20 per cent, there is a striking imbalance between the range of reading required and the value attached to this in terms of assessment. While ensuring that some quite complex coursework demands are met, teachers will have to remember that grades will nonetheless depend largely on performance in the written papers. To put this into perspective, a coursework assignment on a Shakespeare play will probably equate in mark-weighing to 15 minutes' work in the examination.

Ironically, the net result may be a stereotyped and unadventurous reading diet dictated by the need to "tick off" the required assessment outcomes from an early point in the course. I somehow doubt that teachers will be pondering whether Dryden or Wyatt (what happened to Surrey?) will go down better with pupils; a short list of poems by Blake or Wordsworth will be the order of the day. Of particular concern must be the effect these constraints will have on the motivation of weaker pupils.

This all suggests a very different set of priorities from those being encouraged in vocational examinations. How will the core skills of reading and writing for a purpose be reconciled with these predominantly literary demands and with the emphasis on writing in examination conditions? It is particularly difficult to understand why mature students will also be asked to cover these national curriculum requirements in what is effectively a two-term course. How long will it be before we are asking whether this is helping or hindering efforts to raise national standards of literacy?

Although not many of us would have chosen to start from here, what should the priorities have been in translating some ambitious curriculum goals into GCSE criteria? Far more importance should have been attached to the criterion that will matter between this September and August 1998; the delivery of valid and reliable results through a system that is manageable for teachers, examiners, administrators and, not least, candidates. We simply cannot afford the painful learning process that is occurring at key stage 3.

One truism that does not seem to have been sufficiently appreciated is that all assessment is a sampling process. The sample of tasks in any one examination needs to reflect the range of content and skills asked for in the syllabus, but cannot claim to be comprehensive.

If the overload of reading can be blamed on the new English Order, it is more difficult to explain why the approach to assessment criteria in the new syllabuses seems to run counter to the key aim of simplification in the national curriculum revisions. Following the replacement of the Byzantine structure of Statements of Attainment, teachers may be somewhat surprised to find a proliferation of descriptions and grids in the 1998 syllabuses. After the time and effort spent chasing the will o'the wisp of definitive "grade criteria" and "domain attributes" in the early years of GCSE, it is disappointing to find how little seems to have been learnt from this experience.

Weary though they are of the frenetic pace of change during the past five years, many teachers of English must have very mixed feeling about the promised five year moratorium. Perhaps the recent announcement about the separate certification of speaking and listening (the third arrangement of this element in four years) suggests, however, that while pre-1900 texts now feature so much in GCSE English and English literature, the syllabuses themselves may have more trouble making it to 2000.

Why is it that an image from Animal Farm comes into my mind so often these days? Squealer lies stunned at the bottom of the ladder. The animals look in bemusement at the most recent version of the Commandments.

Arthur Parker is English Subject Officer to the Welsh Joint Education Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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