Standards haven't fallen, they've crashed

29th August 2003 at 01:00
NO fanfare of popping champagne corks for Higher English then. Anything but. The vitriol is coming from all directions, there is blood in the water and the sharks are circling. Many column inches are being generated and that won't let up easily. As a former teacher of English - like the reformed smoker, liable to be very annoying - I'm throwing in my view.

Have standards fallen? Was the 2003 exam just a poor specimen of its kind or is there something inherently wrong with the format? Should we blame the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the pupils, the parents, the teachers? Like Pilate of old, we seek the truth.

The truth is that standards have fallen, nay crashed. Sometimes you just can't mince your words so I must agree with the various academics, such as Barbara Fennell, head of English at Aberdeen University, who noted recently that the syntax and vocabulary of the 2003 questions were much simpler than the equivalent in the 1983 paper.

My research took me back to my own schooldays, a smidgen further into the past than 1983. Being a hoarder, I still have the titles of some of my literature essays. Try this title for size: can you justify the apparent Shapelessness of Wordsworth's Prelude? Equally challenging titles on T S Eliot's Wasteland and D H Lawrence's Women In Love jumped out at me. This is unsurprising because my Higher English class was streamed - we were the top section - and nearly every pupil was expected to and did pass with an A grade.

More evidence of sinking standards in 2003 lies in the paucity of vocabulary even in pupils who have attained a Higher A pass in English. An English teacher friend recounts her disbelief when not a single pupil in a reasonably competent Higher class could define the word "pseudo-intellectual". They were all stumped.

I flicked through a textbook from my own era titled Exercises in Practical Criticism. The questions are so demanding. For instance: explain the paradox at the end of stanza 2 or discuss the poet's lexical choice or, most splendid of all, what incongruity of language is present? Now then, fling these gems into the Higher English exam and tell me that standards haven't fallen.

The key to the seemingly unstoppable plummeting of standards lies - as indeed I have previously said in this column - in the S3-S4 syllabus or, should I say, lack of syllabus. Two years to produce a folio of five pieces of work, answer a reading paper and write an essay. While some teachers really test and push their pupils beyond the paltry demands of Standard grade, there is a temptation to coast.

Let's face it - you can probably get a Credit grade in English without knowing what a metaphor is or being able to write in complex sentences or recognising parenthesis. Meaningful preparation for Higher? Of course not.

During a recent discussion on all of this, it was suggested to me that where the pupils of 2003 have the edge over their predecessors is in the skills of thinking and expressing - orally, that is. Actually, I think that I do agree with that and maybe it is a glimmer of light in the darkness but that in no way compensates for failures in the written word.

Rant! Rant! Next I'll be mourning the passing of Latin and suggesting that the new generation of English teachers, who are strangers to the way Latin has shaped our language, must bear some of the blame for the way that English, as a subject, has suffered dilution after dilution. I wouldn't go that far - though I think that there is a point here.

The answer? Sorry. I hold out little hope and none at all in the short term. The most worrying aspect is not the fall in standards, however disturbing that is, but the fact that we seem to be incapable of reversing the trend.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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