It should be plain English

11th October 2013 at 01:00

I'm not sure how much longer my kids will believe in fairies. And by fairies, I mean the GCSE English exam system. And by kids, I mean my class of 15- and 16-year-olds. They are a pretty sharp bunch and they've twigged that clapping their hands to save Tinker Bell doesn't guarantee good results. Come August, when the results are through, she may rise up, sprinkling fairy dust over their grades, but equally she may end up dead in her coffin, as cold and stiff as a Barbie. It's finally filtering through to the students that it's not their efforts that matter, but a prudent mathematical formula that's weighted against happy endings.

And their suspicions are being voiced. Yesterday, I handed them a GCSE marking scheme so that they could peer mark each other's work. Before they began, they asked me for clarification on the terminology. One boy was persistent: "Miss, what exactly is the difference between a 'detailed exploration' and an 'analysis'?" I could tell that he wasn't going to be fobbed off by my usual sleight-of-hand. He had the air of a child who wants to know why all of "Santa's presents" still have Argos labels attached. Had I been asked the same question before becoming a teacher, I would have said they were broadly interchangeable, like calling a coffee an Americano or a cookie a biscuit. But as the exam board ranks these skills in two separate mark bands, I needed to justify why they were different. I hedged, as I always do, by bandying about words such as "insightful".

It's little wonder that students struggle to decode the descriptors. English as a subject is full of nebulous terminology that no one understands. Not even those paid to teach it. Every year my department agonises over the mark scheme for the English reading paper. Even with the latest examiners' report in our hands, we struggle to work out what the students are meant to do. "Is this question looking for paraphrase or a direct quotation?" "How many points are they supposed to make?" "Is this about the writer's intention?" If an entire English department with the IQ of seven Stephen Hawkings, the vocabulary of Stephen Fry and the ability to use semi-colons is unable to detect what a question is after, then a 16-year-old with the reading age of a butternut squash is unlikely to access many of its marks.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of consistency in the exam board's expectations. They chop and change every year. Each exam report introduces a new wish list of student skills encoded acrostically down its margins in invisible ink. Every now and then we crack the code, to the annoyance of markers who would rather we refrained from advising students to "write a lot about a little". After all, you can only read so many rambling paragraphs about the significance of similes before you want to gnaw your own arm off. This term, we're adding the proviso, "It helps if you use full stops."

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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