Exam don't help kids talk proper

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Colin Butler says the speaking and listening parts of GCSE English miss the point

It is 12 years since the introductory national criteria for GCSE English made "communicating effectively and appropriately in spoken English" compulsory, and almost a decade since the examination was first sat in 1988.

Since then, including this summer's candidates, some 4.9 million teenagers have taken the examination. That is a lot of people over a long period. No educational initiative could have been conducted more lavishly. So where is the national upturn in spoken English? It isn't there.

All that classroom time, all those regulations and forms, and you still count yourself lucky to get a voluntary "Please" or "Thank you". Or, as the Institute of Directors put it in a recent letter to me: "potential employees are (still) lacking in social skills and communications skills with peers and colleagues". Despite individual schools' successes, I call that failure. But it is one failure that can't be pinned on teachers: incompetence just cannot be that widely spread. So, if we are not part of the problem, can we be part of the solution?

A few years ago, Professor Brian Cox, who chaired the national curriculum English Working Group, wrote: "If people need to learn a language for some real purpose, then they learn it", and what applies to learning a foreign language applies in spades to learning additional mother tongue skills.

Cox's words explain why, for example, young sportsmen and women in on-air interviews routinely make no attempt to change their register, despite that being a clear national curriculum and GCSE requirement that should have been instilled in them at school. Why should they? They may be kings for only a day, but kings they are, so there is no need for them to act differently.

Conversely, Cox's words also explain why it was that, when the GCSE was first introduced, a significant number of people were speaking and listening perfectly adequately already. As always, background will have played its part. Even so, there were plenty of people around then whose standard of spoken English had been raised not by statutory order but by a mix of imitation, ambition and on-the-job training; and their successors would be just as numerous nowadays, even if examination in spoken English had never been made obligatory.

In other words, improving speaking and listening skills can always be frustrated by circumstances; that goes without saying. But, more importantly, from day one of their respective inceptions, GCSE and national curriculum requirements for speaking and listening have implicitly been redundant. Like poorly-cut garments, they fit where they touch - inevitably, given that a single set of requirements is effectively being visited on children with very diverse needs.

So teachers up and down the country are dutifully putting all their pupils through the same mill because they have to. But the reality of school life is that some pupils need one kind of attention, others need another, and a centrally imposed standardisation machine is not the best way to deliver that kind of flexibility. In fact, it ensures that a lot of time is either inefficiently used or entirely wasted.

The way forward is twofold. First, Speaking and Listening should be removed from the GCSE. By its nature, spoken English cannot be checked on a candidate-by-candidate basis after the event; it cannot form the basis of an appeal; and it can easily be abused. These technical weaknesses alone make spoken English and reliable public examining incompatible in principle, and they now clearly cannot be excused, if they ever could be, by the claim that spoken English in the examination is an indispensable standards raiser. It isn't.

Second, national curriculum levels in Speaking and Listening should be rescinded and responsibility for getting pupils to speak well should be returned to individual schools. That is, heads of English should be required to produce their own in-house diagnosis and remedy programmes and be prepared to defend them.

That is the equivalent of a reasonable professional requirement in any other walk of life, and if it is not seen as such in schools, it is because of the pernicious belief that education is too important to be left to teachers. That belief, however, has led directly to the national curriculum's poisonous overregulation. Its correction is long overdue.

Dr Colin Butler is a senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent.

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