Richard Phillips and his lower ability students reflect on the lessons learned from their GCSE course.
The GCSE results come as no surprise to me. The die was cast for my Year 11 English group when their oral scores and coursework marks were aggregated; their examination performances retrieved no lost causes but confirmed the standard that they had reached.
Regrettably, that was less than they or I would have liked but commensurate with their ability (several having verbal reading quotients in the seventies) and, by and large, with their efforts. However, the course review that each wrote was more telling than their grades.
If they were not universally enthusiastic about the texts we studied, there was happily a distinct preference for Macbeth over Hobson's Choice. Several echoed the comment that this was "the best topic", (of 12); "I was pleasantly surprised how good this was". Though a number of the most able boys bore a prejudice against the language barrier that was barely dented, another wrote: "It was a hard play to understand but very interesting and enjoyable; I thought that both the video and the book were excellent." The teacher is praised for "making it fun", though this might be a back-handed compliment.
Hobson's Choice seems dusty nowadays. It is seen as boring and "historical" - an accusation that no one levels against Macbeth. The research reading assignments are generally unpopular and only the presentation of the antiquated Charles LaughtonJohn Mills video redeemed the play.
Videos in English classes, like any other teaching style, must be used judiciously. Though the recent BBC video of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (which I found dreadfully slow) is popular, opinions on a Knowledge About Language tape devoted to accents are more mixed. An interest in a videoed version of Wesker's Roots is heartening, though the girl who recalls it so vividly is attracted to the Beattie Bryant character, as is another girl to Maggie in Hobson's Choice and the feminist perspective is also strong amid the general approval for Roll of Thunder.
"Too little practical video work" is one fair and useful comment received. The class generally enjoyed activities which they perceived as giving them responsibility - structured debates, collaborative work on producing brochures, compiling advertising materials: "Based on opinion as well as fact and this makes it more interesting." Many value group discussion: "The chance to speak our minds."
These pupils seemed more realists than romantics. But one boy's comment is a joy to read: "I make poetry my first choice. I like poetry both in and out of school. I think more lessons should be dedicated to poetry as most people are unfamiliar with it." However, neither he nor I persuaded enough of the group to agree with us.
Reporting work experience and role-playing job interviews were thought worthy activities. As might be expected, Speaking and Listening was the favoured field and the one in which they most excelled. Reading was not really in-bred at the start of the course and remained problematic. In Writing there was generally some growth, especially when it could be word processed, and a number of pupils praised opportunities to write creatively.
One sure-fire favourite unit has at its core the Alan Sillitoe story "Uncle Ernest". Set at the beginning of the course, it marked a step up into adult literature and achieved a popularity that, sadly, nothing really matched thereafter. The brief length of the text, its style and structure are attractive and it proves a catalyst for writing of many kinds and for much discussion, sometimes heated.
A really damp squib was "L'Affaire Cantona" which I thought presented us with an excellent opportunity to examine reportage of that memorable January evening at Selhurst Park. Perhaps, like Clive, I had assumed that "everyone likes football", but I was mistaken. Many could not relate to it at all and, among those who could, a majority could not separate the footballing issues from the more important language issues!
Often the clearest criterion in the group's decision making is to ask of any unit of work: was it boring? Some pupils, perhaps the most honest, usefully re-interpret the question to mean: how difficult was it? The work pupils most enjoyed seems to have been the work best rewarded, though it is not clear if they enjoyed at the time. In this class there is also an acknowledgement of the all-round difficulty caused by absence and part-time work.
Though only a couple of the class have been included in our return of A-C passes I am grateful to them for their responses. The borderline between C and D does not really mark off success from failure. This has been a profitable year and one which should have encouraged rather than deterred most members of the set, regardless of results. They have not enjoyed all the units of work but the review exercise confirms how more self-aware they have become.
Philip Warren is a teacher in Gloucestershire