Leaving little room for any original thought

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Teachers always worry more than their students during public examinations, but this year my knickers seem to be in more of a twist than usual. How will my candidates fare if they produce what the examiners suspect are "prepared answers"?

Since human beings ordinarily retain no more than 20 per cent of what they hear, it is unlikely that any of my pearls of wisdom will survive on to examination scripts, but it does happen. Examining GCE English lit, I once found a centre's scripts with near-identical Romeo and Juliet essays, even ending with the same quotation. There was no suggestion of foul play - the teacher must have recently covered a question the board happened to set.

We've all suffered the opposite - there on the paper is the question you never thought of. I once thought I had covered everything on Macbeth with a class which was asked about the Porter, all two pages of him. And an A-level candidate nearly lynched me when The Mill on the Floss drew a question about courage - "You never mentioned courage in the whole two years!" We expect more originality at A-level, and less regurgitating of received teacher opinion. Examiners enjoy provoking an original response and questions which may, initially, paralyse the candidates. We hope they'll think: "What a surprising question - I had not thought of that, but give me a moment to order my thoughts, and I will expound upon it for you, no problem." We do try to teach the text, not the examination answers; the capacity for thought and reflection, the skills of judgment and selection, argument and persuasion. originality, that too, though maybe the only way to get a really original response, unsullied by contact with teacher-thought, is to give out the texts in the lower sixth and send the students home.

Fair enough at A-level, but at GCSE? That's where complaints are beginning to surface - candidates producing prepared answers, and examiners are not happy.

Partly it's a product of the GCSE literature papers: differentiating them from English papers has produced exams where questions on things like setting and atmosphere csn be applied by the candidate to any text. Asked to "discuss a text in which you have found the author's creation of setting and atmosphere particularly effective", candidates are free to answer it on whatever book they like - preferably, though I suppose not necessarily, one they have studied.

The trouble is that a time-pressed GCSE student, juggling with nine subjects and wanting as many A grades as possible, may sensibly reduce swotting time on Eng. Lit. by preparing three questions in advance - "I'll do 'setting' on Lord of the Flies, 'characterisation' on Macbeth - the Porter, maybe? - and Wilfred Owen's 'style' - magic!" It's even possible that a conscientious teacher might advise this, and go over such questions in class, pointing out good quotes, and useful places to find the really good bits. after all, we too want as many As as we can conjure, do we not? Cynically preparing one topic per text is horribly limiting, but very realistic, a pragmatic response to the demands of the examination.

Perhaps I'll just untwist my knickers and say, "So be it." If they insist on reducing GCSE coursework, which promoted an individual and original response, and set examinations which cry out for formulaic answers, then maybe they'll just have to take the consequences.

Hilary Moriarty is an English teacher and deputy head of the Red Maids School, Bristol

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