Ampleforth's 'unimaginative' response to literature GCSE

31st October 1997 at 00:00
We were disappointed to read that teachers at Ampleforth had responded so unimaginatively to the GCSE English literature courses and chosen to establish their own (TES, October 17) . We deliberated over our choice of new syllabus for first examination in 1998 (which begs the question of how one might already have decided that the papers were "too easy") and were particularly encouraged by a representative from the chosen board to think creatively when presenting the course to able students.

It would be possible to meet Ampleforth criteria through the courses in English and literature which we offer to students. English coursework requires a response to any Shakespeare play: Othello or The Taming of the Shrew would be acceptable, but why not Hamlet or Lear? Wide reading involves a response to two texts, one of which must be prose from before 1900 while the other is free choice: a comparison of Fielding's picaresque novel Tom Jones with Swift's Gulliver's Travels would be entirely suitable.

Other coursework for English involves a response to the media: one could read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and analyse the wonderfully evocative opening to Polanski's film version. Better still, then read Hardy's great unfilmed work, The Woodlanders, and ask students to storyboard and film the opening sequence? Original writing requires a creative piece from candidates - but it can be based upon reading: one could take Dickens's unfinished text The Mystery of Edwin Drood, explore its substance and style, then ask students to finish it.

The courses involve coursework which may explain Ampleforth's reservations; however, we assume that, like most English teachers, our colleagues there would neither condone nor allow abuse of the system which enables students to work at their own pace and to enjoy texts as they do so. Of course, tasks could always be done at the end of units, under timed conditions to give further preparation for A-level.

We can think of only two reasons why the English teachers at Ampleforth have reached their decision. Perhaps they did not explore sufficiently the possibilities of the new syllabuses. Yet the fact that they have compiled their own exam suggests that a lack of energy and imagination is not the problem.

May we suggest, therefore, that some form of academic "one-upmanship" is at work here? The serious effect is that, apart from our seeing these views unchallenged in The TES, the tabloids and the Daily Telegraph have once again been given the opportunity to splash their pages with headlines about how today's students have an easy life.

We don't teach all the texts named or approach the courses in the way described - partly because to do so would exclude a wealth of other texts, but mainly because we like to make some of the work more easily accessible for students who have plenty of other things to do for their eight other GCSEs.

NICK DAVEY and seven others Stanground College Peterborough Road Peterborough

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