Success at the cost of love?

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Will passion for literature be sacrificed now exams have replaced continuous assessment, wonders Keith Brindle.

English teaching has changed considerably since the end of continuous assessment. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1993 students were awarded passes in GCSE English and literature for producing just a set of assignments and that teachers had the freedom to choose texts and approaches. Now, candidates are required to deal with such a variety of texts, skills and monitored and assessed activities, underpinned by precise syllabus descriptors, that few would claim the current examinations are not a sterner test and a better preparation for the varieties of English which young people will meet in the post-16 world. However, as we all know, few things in life are straightforward.

Recently I noticed that one of my ex-pupils, Joanne, had written a stunning letter for a newspaper arguing a case for single parents. Ten years ago, she completed her continuously assessed GCSE course, then dropped out of her A-level group at college because she was pregnant. Her formal education ended, but one thing is obvious: the woman has a genuine flair for language.

It brought home to me how few of today's students take from their courses the same excitement that her teaching group enjoyed. I remember well how they burrowed through the text of The Tempest, analysed Browning's personae and responded to a range of modern texts. This was in a quite ordinary comprehensive school. Then, though, we all had time to love the work. Now, 80 per cent of candidates take the NEAB's hugely successful exams. For English and literature, they have to complete three closely monitored speaking and listening assignments, five written assignments and three exam papers totalling six hours. But are the candidates genuinely receiving a higher quality of education?

Certainly teachers' understanding of how to help students o be successful has grown. If you want your group to do well in coursework you tailor the assignments to meet the descriptors. A task based on just one scene of a play is quicker and easier to produce than a detailed critique of a whole text. Analytical skills can be honed: but do the students develop the same love of reading? Or is this another push towards a bite-size future in which the extract is considered to be of more immediate importance than the whole?

The terminal exams pose different problems. Teachers, though, are learning to coach their students more effectively. For example, for the first time in many cases students are being taught how to plan their writing for Section B responses on the English papers.

Such skills will benefit them in later life. Still, are such activities best tested under exam conditions? Or is the creativeanalytical task worth more consideration?

When we look at Paper 2 in Section A, candidates usually produce predictable answers on the poet and on the "poems from other cultures and traditions". They have been drilled to write about a poem in 15 minutes. Students are rarely stimulated to a love of poetry. In the literature exam, many centres stick to the anthology for their texts, and their students can pass the exam without any study of a novel.

In the days of 100 per cent coursework, the hardest task was to get teachers to award good grades to their own students; now the examiners are making those decisions and exhausted English departments can enjoy the results.

Nevertheless, I think of Joanne. If she had gone through the present system, I am sure she would have gained a good grade, but I'm certain the current system would have disappointed her.

Keith Brindle is the author of "GCSE English Exam Techniques and GCSE English Writing Frames - Genre" (Folens), and is GCSE assistant principal examiner. The views expressed here are his own

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