Time for a new start

30th April 2004 at 01:00
As a teacher for both A-level and the International Baccalaureate, Gary Snapper welcomes an opportunity to rethink sixth-form English in the light of 14-19 reform

We have an idea of what the proposed new diploma system will look like. The new 14-19 "core" will include English in the form of "Communication". Current A-level specifications may be integrated into the system much as they are, but the new diploma could offer a valuable opportunity to rethink the subject, especially English literature.

In the view of many critics over the past 30 years, A-level English literature, despite minor positive changes for Curriculum 2000, is a rather narrow and atomised study of a small number of texts, doing little to further students' understanding of literary studies, or their engagement with the cultural and political issues which form a central part of it.

One place we could look for ideas is the International Baccalaureate (IB)- one of the main inspirations of Tomlinson's working group. I have taught the IB, as well as A-level, for 10 years, and find the comparison illuminating. The syllabus reflects the international perspective, breadth of content and integrated learning philosophy of the IB diploma as a whole.

Along with the flexibility and variety of the course structure and assessment scheme, this gave me the freedom to construct a coherent, thought-provoking and individual course based on broad and thematic approaches - quite unlike A-level.

Students study 15 texts, chosen from a varied and extensive list and taught, mostly, in thematic groups, organised by topic, genre, period or culture. Five texts are required to have been written in a language other than English (something which is, shockingly, not allowed at A-level), and there is a wide choice of non-British writers in English.

I was able to create my own thematic approaches, and in one part of the syllabus had a completely free choice of texts. There are opportunities for creative or analytical responses - many teachers develop the international perspective to encompass post-colonialism - for instance, with a topic on African literature and another on contemporary Scottish writing.

Assessment is balanced, varied and relatively unobtrusive (20 per cent written and 30 per cent oral coursework, 50 per cent written exam); and not every text is explicitly assessed. The emphasis is on building a broad understanding of genres and cultural contexts, so assessment is much less focused on the close detailed reading which can be so limiting at A-level.

It is hard work, but I found that the course engages students of a range of abilities, and enthuses teachers more effectively than A-level. It takes a more profoundly "synoptic" approach than A-level, with depth arising from breadth. Its thematic and international nature lends itself to an approach which foregrounds contextual issues throughout the course, reinforced through the cross-curricular "theory of knowledge" strand which is compulsory for all IB students. They examine underlying concepts across subjects, and may explore conceptual issues related to language, aesthetics and culture: potentially, the basics of cultural and literary theory.

Could this be a model for the new diploma? Yes, though despite the integrity and coherence of its approach, IB English is still a relatively conservative model. We could bring nearer to the centre important literary issues, interesting and accessible to students - cultural value, representation, genre and narrative, criticism and interpretation, for instance - which are at the heart of the discipline today. That is what English is like in Australia, and what film and media studies and the Advanced Extension Awards are like here - though why these issues should be reserved for the most able when they are of such importance to all is a mystery to me.

Then there is the question of language. What about reinventing sixth-form English as a single coherent subject - English studies, perhaps - in which all students are introduced to language and literature (and can specialise if they want to)? Do we really want to perpetuate a system whereby most English students know all about literature or language, but little or nothing about the other - or about the vital ways in which they interrelate? Language and power; culture, society and the world; literacy and learning: has there ever been a time when it was more important for our students to grasp the basics of these topics?

Curriculum 2000 only marginally addressed these issues - ones which sixth-form and university teachers have been raising for more than 30 years, and which become ever more urgent. My experience has convinced me that, however the new diploma looks in the end, it is essential that we take a progressive approach to the constitution of our subject within it, ensuring breadth, variety, flexibility and an enlightened approach to cultural and cross-curricular understanding.

para = Gary Snapper was until recently head of English at Impington Village College and is a PhD student at the Institute of Education

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