A poor test case

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Following last year's GCSE English literature results, I spent five months writing letters and telephoning the exam board trying to get marks upgraded for many of my students because I knew that the grades awarded did not reflect their talents or abilities. In the end the whole centre was re-marked and 12 candidates were upgraded. But the fact that their Ds eventually became Cs was no consolation to those who lost college places and possible job opportunities as a consequence of the initial low grading.

And I wonder how many letters it will take before we get a refund for the re-mark fees - some Pounds 200.

It is a sad fact that our nation is obsessed with testing. In English the assessment project has failed and although many of my key stage 3 test results were incorrect I did not return them to the marking agency as I didn't want to raise the status of tests which those of us who are left with the real job of constructing a worthwhile English curriculum know are meaningless.

At GCSE the undesirable weightings towards terminal examinations, coupled with a sterile range of texts offering a dead embrace of the past, have had a demotivating effect on students over the past two years. The arrival of the new syllabuses gives no cause for optimism. As I look around my Year 9 mixed-ability class I wonder how I will persuade my department that somehow even our statemented students will cope with the exam board's pre-released material and respond to Wordsworth and Rossetti as they move into Year 10 in September.

All the syllabuses offer the same uninspired mix: male-dominated texts; an over-emphasis on pre-20th century material; difficult comparative tasks for coursework that only counts for 30 per cent of the total mark and a patronising belief that "other traditions and cultures" will keep the inner-city classrooms happy. The set texts and the reading requirements for GCSE literature do not reflect the interests of most 14 to 16-year-olds. We are left with syllabuses that reflect a sad lack of imagination on the part of both the exam boards and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and in reality offer little for students reading at levels 4, 5 and 6.

The syllabuses are largely intended for open book exams and every candidate will need access to one or two copies of different texts. I suspect debates about whether students should buy their own texts will be on many senior management agendas but quite apart from the fact that most parents have paid their taxes once, how many English departments want 200 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird in their stock cupboards? Years 7 and 8 also want something exciting to read but after funding GCSE yet again, there simply won't be any money left.

The difference this time is that we are stuck with this scenario for the next five years at least. Thank you, Sir Ron.

Kevin Morris Kevin Morris is head of English at The Bradbourne School, Sevenoaks, Kent.

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