Crisis? What crisis?

30th September 2005 at 01:00
QCA's consultation English 21 raises crucial issues for English teachers. John Hodgson outlines NATE's response

As social and technological change accelerates, concern about the future of English increases. What do we mean by the basic skills of literacy, when students are as adept with mouse and keyboard as they are with the pen? What is the place of a national literary heritage, when many students bring other heritages into the classroom? What are the alternatives to a paper-based external exam system that is near to breaking point? QCA's English 21 consultation covers these and other issues. Here are some answers as well as some further questions.

The first strand of the consultation, English For All Learners, points out that the English language has evolved over the centuries through international contact. English teachers experience these contacts daily in the classroom. In order to respect and engage our students, we need to understand the culture they bring to school.

How can QCA help us access the literacy skills our students already have, to help them gain access to other forms and uses of English? How can "local" knowledge and language contact a wider "global" community? Can we work with QCA to create a form of literary heritage that reflects an international and multi-ethnic world?

The second strand, Flexibility and Innovation, focuses on the 14-19 age range. Like the Tomlinson Committee, QCA speak of "core functional communication skills" with options. Will this tired formula work? Why should a student endure a model of literacy that postulates so-called "basic skills", separate from the living use of language, literature, media, film and drama? These critical, cultural and creative literacies should be an entitlement for students at this age.

QCA is concerned to balance "the potentially different emphases of higher education, employers and the individual". Need we assume any conflict between personal development needs and employment needs? Employability may well require competence in visual, theatrical and media literacies, as well as in the interpersonal, analytical and presentational skills learned in drama and language studies.

QCA's account of the third strand, Texts and Technologies, looks towards a media-literate society in which students are critical participants, but implies a questionable view of the essential attributes of ICT. Is it inevitable that "length" and "reading stamina" will be associated with printed texts while most screen reading will be in "short chunks"? Reading modes are likely to have more to do with the purposes of reading (eg research and personal communication) than with the technologies involved.

Can QCA help us integrate ICT, media studies and English? (For example, an understanding of drama conventions is crucial in developing young people's analysis and production of media texts.) There are further concerns here. Digital technology can be a powerful force for inclusion, but might it lead to the marginalisation of certain groups of students and teachers in terms of age, race, gender and affluence? Should we also consider the relation to ICT to physical space? How can we enable students to do more physically, moving in a range of spaces and contexts? ICT can certainly support formative assessment, but the use of e-assessment must not reduce English to what can be conveniently graded using new technology.

By 2015, we need to develop a community of assessment practice. How can QCA help us achieve this? All students are entitled to regular formative assessment, including spoken feedback and the creative use of ICT. Such assessment should engage students and be a pleasurable rather than forbidding aspect of schooling. Public assessment is required only at crucial transition points. This may include formal tests and examinations, but these are likely to be marked within the institution. How will QCA assist the process of replacing the current external examination system with a reliable method of accredited internal assessment?

English by 2015 will have moved well beyond traditional models of literacy and heritage. Crucially, the curriculum must become responsive to the needs of students as citizens both of the world and of particular localities.

This will require a cultural change not only inside but also outside the classroom. Will QCA help us create a world where education is no longer rendered superficially functional through a narrow culture of targets and league tables?


John Hodgson has been head of English in two large schools and currently chairs NATE's post-16 committee.He is writing a longitudinal study of young people's literacy practices and is a visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England

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