Put 'I' in GCSE to give pupils their own voice

1st July 2011 at 01:00

"Are you writing down any of your ideas?" I ask a critically lazy Year 10 boy. He stares at me. "Well, Miss," he replies, "I've got words but I'm not sure where to put them."

I spend my time at school trying to teach meanings, impact, audience, purpose, structure and grammar. "Take scissors to that sentence!" I yell. "Bulldoze that paragraph!"

Some listen and really try to think about where to put their words, but others truly don't know how to choose their vocabulary to create an effect. Often it is too late by the time they are in key stage 4. The damage has been done after 10 years in a conveyor-belt system that rarely asks them to be independent.

They are frightened of failure and look to you for an answer. This neediness makes them good exam fodder, but can be death to effective writing. Our current GCSEs are stripping away pupils' ability to think independently - the very skill needed to succeed in all aspects of life.

It is almost as if we need a measure of achievement that requires pupils to think independently, where choice is paramount and imagination rewarded. Step forward the AQA IGCSEs in English.

If you work at an independent school, the chances are you have been teaching them since they were introduced a few years ago. But colleagues in state schools may not realise that the course is free from the constraints of national curriculum statutory requirements, while adhering to its general ethos.

Because it does not follow the curriculum to the letter, it allows pupils their own voice. They get to choose their own area of assessment and pursue independent research into it. Assessments aren't taught as a whole class, they are individual, leaving pupils the choice to examine a politician's speech or writer's body of work. The stabilisers are off.

Teachers of the standard English literature GCSE will be very familiar with the opening chapter of Great Expectations; Act I, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet; and Act I, Scene II of Macbeth. Why? Because there is so much to cover we have to reduce these great works to the analysis of extracts. Students are aware of the wider plot and themes, but most may only study a select few scenes or chapters, as required.

In contrast, for the AQA IGCSEs you study three or more whole texts. Yes, whole texts. Cover to cover and everything.

But if I went round state schools proposing that they switch to this qualification, most headteachers would laugh me out of the room. The reason for that lies in the dark core of our education system, the part that devours our schools from the inside. To put it plainly, this IGCSE still does not count in the main league table measure, the one for five A*-Cs including English and maths. So, for most schools, it might as well not exist.

If the Government is intent on sticking with such a simplified way of judging schools' worth, they should at least count these qualifications. Maybe then our pupils would learn not only where to put their words, but how to become the independent self-starters our society so desperately needs.

Amy Winston is an English teacher at a comprehensive in the West Midlands.

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