Our texts in English exams

23rd November 2012 at 00:00

The Higher English critical essay paper is one of the jewels in the crown of Scottish education: it is enormously adaptable, and widely accessible. It allows teachers a free choice of texts in the classroom, and candidates free choice in the exam. At its best, it invites well-developed, autonomous responses which are often astonishingly detailed. It is a hugely successful model we should be changing with only the greatest reluctance.

I wonder then whether, instead of trying to compel answers on Scottish texts in this paper, we should look to the close reading paper for a solution. Would it be possible to replace the passages currently used - drawn usually from the broadsheet press - with unseen Scottish literary text?

Candidates could be invited to prepare for such a paper by studying a range of short texts and extracts from a wide variety of Scottish writers. SQA or Education Scotland could provide materials, and each text or extract could be accompanied by "understanding" and "analysis" questions of the kind that would be set in the new paper. Texts could be selected from a range of contemporary and older sources, presented chronologically, and designed to give students some experience of the Scottish literary tradition.

Concerns about students' experience of non-fiction, important in a course that has such a wide target market, could be assuaged by ensuring its use in at least one of the new unit outcomes. In any event, students would continue to read non-fiction in their preparation for the folio discursive essay. This suggestion has a number of advantages:

- it would renew the experience of close reading and, while it would take it in a more literary direction, it would build on the experience of the excellent prose fiction set in some recent years at Standard grade;

- it would give pupils a meaningful sense of the broad sweep of the Scottish literary heritage;

- it would ensure that pupils were studying and answering on Scottish texts, thereby satisfying the current political imperative;

- fundamentally, it would maintain the critical essay paper as it is.

I hope, then, that we might look to a reform of the close reading paper as a way forward on this divisive issue.

Kenneth Simpson, principal teacher of English, George Heriot's School, Edinburgh.

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