It helps if you are a genius

4th September 1998 at 01:00
If you can spare a minute from scanning results in your own subject this year, cast an eye over the English results in your school. Watch out for that rare thing, a starred A in English. Never mind that it is the native language of most of the candidates, it is probably one of the hardest examinations in which to excel.

Content-based subjects, that is most of them, require pupils to repeat what is already known. Clever children learn what they are taught, repeat it for examiners, and are rewarded with the highest grades. But English marks depend on the subjective judgment of essays by the examiner. Now that the English GCSE requires study of a Shakespeare text, you might think that even English had acquired a "content" as well as a skill element.

But English reserves the highest grades for original work. And, by definition, that cannot be taught. Or learned, come to that. The marking instructions say that when it comes to work on Shakespeare, the A* grade should be given for "originality of analysis and interpretation".

This means that candidates must write something which has not been said before. Not by me, not by classmates, and not by any study guides. Goodbye teaching, group discussion, wider reading. Er, goodbye study.

If any 16-year-old has the capacity for this kind of work - beyond "analytical and interpretative" (A grade), and off into the exalted realms of "originality" for his A* - then he or she ought to be lecturing at university and writing books about Shakespeare.

We ought not to expect such spectacular performance for the highest grade at GCSE. It's like giving a starred A in science only to Einstein. And if they give starred As in science to less than Einstein, then they ought to be similarly generous in English.

What I cannot understand is the silence of English teachers, who must be watching the starred As being awarded in bucketfuls in many curriculum areas, but not in English, and not complaining. In 1996, of the 650,000 candidates in English, 2 per cent boasted starred As, compared with 5.2 per cent among the 130,000-plus who took German. Add in the A grades, and things look even worse: English, 11 per cent A* and A grades, Spanish (42,597 candidates) 28.3 per cent. Are we really better at foreign languages than we are at English?

There is a parallel to our "doing down" of candidates' skills in their own language. In 1996, of candidates doing Welsh as a first language, 1.7 per cent attained starred As, but of candidates for whom it was a second language, l0.6 per cent reached the highest grade. Might it be that examiners are looking for different things from native speakers? If so, isn't it a nonsense to value all GCSEs as if they were comparable?

Hilary Moriarty teaches English and is deputy headmistress at Red Maids independent girls' school in Bristol

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