How to mark time for a winter without discontent

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Now could be a winter without discontent in English teaching. Gillian Shephard's speech at the Conservative party conference was not intended to create the opportunity for a radical re-think of assessment in English, but it could do precisely that. Her declaration that she would seek separate certification for spoken English could invove a proper review of GCSE English assessment.

English teachers stand vindicated for their prolonged and professional opposition to testing at key stage 3, since it is now apparent that without their positive involvement, the results are never going to be reliable or useful. They also know, because of the increased level of school protest over GCSE grades, that the insistence on basing 60 per cent of marks on examination has produced results which are less reliable than the coursework which it replaced.

Nevertheless, most teachers accept the political parameters which make impossible a return to 100 per cent coursework. What we all want is a proper balance between coursework and testing.

At present coursework accounts for only 40 per cent of the GCSE award in English: it counts for the whole of speaking and listening (20 per cent) but for only a quarter of reading and writing (10 per cent for each). This is not enough, especially when it is only coursework that can cover the national curriculum fully. Since even the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority acknowledges that tests can only cover a sampling of what is in the curriculum, it makes no sense to give coursework less than 50 per cent of the weighting at GCSE.

Nothing would change the mood of English teachers as much as a plan to increase the proportion of GCSE coursework for reading and writing - and a move in the right direction would be so easy. The decision by the Secretary of State to revert to the pre-1994 model of separate certification for spoken English could "release" the 20 per cent of coursework currently allocated to speaking and listening. This could increase the coursework weightings for reading and for writing by 10 per cent each, although they would still not match the weighting given to examination.

All that would be needed is a change to the weightings, not the syllabus content, so there need be no extra work for teachers and no delay in the introduction of new syllabuses for examination in 1998.

It was never a good idea to teach and to assess the national curriculum through attainment targets and then to award an overall subject grade. If a young person is good enough to gain a B grade in speaking and listening, a C in reading but only a D in writing, I see it as an unhelpful procedure to award an English grade of C. Employers, in particular, are deprived of useful information on potential employees if we do not distinguish between speaking and listening, reading and writing.

Separating these grades would have distinct advantages in terms of the examining process. Evidence of speaking and listening is comparatively transitory; it is difficult to calibrate these ephemeral elements against the tangible evidence of reading and writing. The practical consequence of an admirable-sounding principle is that speaking and listening are under-valued when lost in an overall grade.

Similarly sensible modifications to the key stage 3 tests, such as the transfer of Shakespeare to teacher assessment, could remove the major points of tension over English by providing procedures fit for the purpose. One outcome could be a recognition by teachers that Sir Ron Dearing has not laboured in vain and that their voices have at last been heard. We could then return to our real task of seeking to live up to the English national curriculum's vision that children should become fluent speakers, discriminating listeners, discerning readers and effective writers.

Michael Jones is a former chair of English advisers and currently a chair of Examiners or GCSE English. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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