Chapter 1: Why a text list will never please us all

8th March 2013 at 00:00
The confirmed Scottish books for National 5 make for interesting reading and strike a good balance

When talking about Scottish texts, the words of the poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln, often come to mind: "You can't please all of the people all of the time."

Literature is so subjective that this is certainly true of any list of texts, Scottish or otherwise.

However, after the publication last week of the final list of Scottish texts for National 5, it seems a good time to reflect just how far SQA went to ensure that as many people as possible were pleased with that final list.

Early last year, ministers accepted the recommendation from the Scottish Studies Working Group that pupils studying Higher English should have to answer a question on a Scottish text in the final exam. The recommendation was extended to the new National 5 exam and SQA was set a challenging assignment - to find the best method of assessment for mandatory Scottish texts.

It came down to a choice between a critical essay or an extract-based question and the SQA's Qualifications Design Team (QDT) for English debated the best approach at length.

Critical essays have their fans, and their detractors. For the current courses in English, candidates have to write two critical essays, which ask a generic question about a text that demands a critical evaluation of the text based on detailed knowledge.

Supporters of the extract-based approach argue that this allows a broader range of candidates to "get into" the question through the familiarity of a selected passage. This approach does not, however, just require knowledge and analysis of the extract; it asks for broader context and understanding - allowing stronger candidates to potentially score high marks.

It was decided the extract-based approach was the best way forward. It also meant candidates would be asked to display a wider range of skills in the exam, by answering a critical essay and an extract-based question.

Importantly, the critical essay will continue to allow candidates to answer questions on classic texts, including Shakespeare, heading off criticism that such authors would no longer be studied at National 5 and Higher.

Once the decision had been taken to go for the extract-based approach, the SQA's principal assessors in English mocked up an exam paper and how it might look with an extract-based approach. The QDT agreed to move forward - and the thorny process of deciding on the texts began.

A number of broad principles had to apply. The different genres - drama, poetry and prose - had to reflect the rich history and culture of Scotland. This demanded a range of traditional and contemporary texts, different historical periods, rural and urban settings and a mixture of dialects and regional locations.

The first long list was drawn up by the QDT and the Curriculum Area Review Group (Carg), which includes teachers, teaching unions, college lecturers and representatives of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. The list was based on existing exam texts that pupils were keen on, plus new items suggested by members.

The final decision, however, needed much wider consideration, so the SQA commissioned Ashbrook Research to do more detailed work on the kind of texts the teaching profession wanted and considered appropriate for pupils.

Using quantitative and qualitative research - an online survey and eight focus groups - Ashbrook gathered more than 800 views. Provisional shortlists were drawn up after considering the report and the views of teachers at specific subject events on the new English qualifications.

A number of other factors were taken into account. All texts chosen had to be suitable for the extract-based question and appropriate for the age and ability of candidates. It was also crucial to identify texts that engage young people.

The issue of crossover between different levels was raised during the consultation and taken into account in the final list. Teachers are conscious that some young people will need to move from one qualification level to another and having some texts that cross over was clearly important to the profession. That is why the lists for National 5 and Higher include common writers and texts that are popular with teachers and pupils (as evidenced by previous exam answers). Both lists include The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins, the short stories of Iain Crichton Smith and a selection of poetry by Norman MacCaig and Carol Ann Duffy.

The feedback also reflected a desire not to set the list in stone, so SQA agreed to review and, where necessary, refresh it as required - probably every three years. This does not mean all texts will be changed, but it will allow other popular texts to be brought in and newer works to be included. Certain texts could be removed if the number of pupils choosing to answer questions on them is very low.

The feedback showed that some teachers are keen to retain traditional Scottish texts. It is important to get the balance right by allowing some contemporary writing to be included alongside favourites such as Stevenson's Kidnapped.

In the end, the National 5 list, and the new Higher list to be published in May, achieve a really good mix of high-quality, engaging and appropriate texts to challenge our young people. But I appreciate that there will be critics; after all, you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Gill Stewart, Director of qualifications, Scottish Qualifications Authority.

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