Kafka confuses tests for 14s

18th May 2007 at 01:00
IT IS one of the most analysed short stories of the 20th-century, a dark tale of alienation that has been taken to prefigure some of the worst totalitarian excesses to come.

But for some on the receiving end, Franz Kafka's story Metamorphosis carried a whole new set of torturous implications last week, when it became the basis for a national test taken by 600,000 13 and 14-year-olds.

The first of three texts set for the reading test was Kafka's strange 1916 story of Gregor Samsa, the travelling salesman who wakes up one day to discover he has become a gigantic insect.

The complexity of the subject matter was enough to have some teachers bristling with sarcasm.

"Good to have Franz Kafka to warm up those low-level fours," wrote one on The TES online staffroom.

Another said: "Well, we obviously don't have enough decent authors in English, so let's pick the beginning of a seminal existentialist text by a Czech translated from the German."

Another teacher suggested some of the extract's deeper themes might have passed her pupils by. "Miss, what the fuck was that about a bloody beetle?"

one boy reportedly asked.

But for Anthony Farrell, head of English at St Ives school in Cornwall, pupils not understanding the story's implications would not find this a barrier to their success. And this was the tests' problem.

He said: "The reading passages were more interesting than the questions, but the questions are never that interesting. It's a technical exercise, with no empathetic responses required from pupils.

"There was no need for pupils to engage the imagination with what it might be like to be an insect. It was just the usual questions about stylistic devices."

Other texts set for the reading test were non fiction, one discussing the work of 17th-century entomologist Jan Swammerdamm and the other an article on the development of adolescents' brains.

Some teachers also criticised the decision to drop bullet-point suggestions, which had appeared in previous reading tests to advise pupils on how to answer longer questions.

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