Variations on a theme

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Despite early fears, Jane Christopher admits to cautious optimism about the new A-level exam changes

Like many other teachers I had my doubts about the new A-level changes. After updating our key stage 3 manual in light of the new Order, creating a manual for KS4, revising schemes of work, OFSTED, and writing a handbook in my first year as head of department, I could have wept. Fears of a decline in standards, larger class sizes, less able pupils, never mind the increased workload - all this made me think my summer would disappear beneath the weight of yet more work and preparation. Not good when all I wanted to do was read Harry Potter in Italy (Voldemort doesn't seem so bad in a warm climate).

I am not going to preach conversion. I am still concerned with the possibility of larger class sizes and the effect this will have on staff and students and I worry that in future universities will offer places based on AS scores. Time alone will tell. At present I feel cautiously optimistic.

I remember that my own A-level choices did not come in a flash of light; I was not really sure what I wanted to do. Students now have greater room to move before specialising - teachers do too. We are now able to offer English Language - a subject I really enjoy teaching - as an A-level, as well as English Literature, and have a large take-up for both courses at our school.

The changes have meant that we have considered different exam boards and the kind of courses we want to teach, and perhaps even moving away from the literature mantra of "two Shakespeare, four others. Three each and split the coursework".

AQA specification B has "pre-release" material for both English Language and English Literature syllabuses, where material which students are not allowed to discuss with teachers is released three days before the exam. This is something I have only been used to in the early days of English Language A-level, and feel is more comfortable in this context rather than in Literature as the project coursework provides pupils with skills vital for such analysis. However, there is an interesting move here towards students playing a greater part in their own learning, using a language activity such as the case study in a Literature context.

There are strong similarities between the boards for Language, with variation in the usage of English, original writing and language investigation coursework, editorial writing - similar to textual recasting - and, thank goodness, history of English and language development, two topics that always prove popular and successful with students. This similarity, instead of making the decision difficult, has made it less daunting and less threaening. There is a greater uniformity of content and approach, with the same topics appearing and the same clear structure of six units in each syllabus. We chose AQA specification B because we felt that the project work would prove helpful in tackling the pre-release material.

Edexcel's Literature syllabus has Unit 6 as Criticism and Comparison instead of the pre-release material offered by AQA specification B but, as with Language, this seems to be the only real difference between OCR and AQA. There is the same six-unit structure with both closed and open book exams and coursework, Shakespeare, prose, poetry, drama covering different periods - pre and post-1900 and now also pre-1770 - making a total of eight texts. Our decision in favour of Edexcel for Literature was based on the texts offered and the quality of the poetry anthology and teacher notes, which was no different from normal practice but this time the opportunity to compare awarding bodies gave us a wider field.

In general, there seems to be more choice and greater uniformity of approach. I like the fact that, within what appears at initial inspection to be a restrictive structure for each course, there is the opportunity for self-supported study and for students to be given the chance to learn how to research and learn independently.

The side of me that likes everything labelled and categorised is bothered. I worry about overseeing this effectively without being too heavy-handed. I temper this by remembering that for a year I have been exchanging creative writing with a bright spark, a situation that arose out of a chance remark and one where I have seen a student express complex ideas with fluency and intelligence. It worries me that I might have missed this, that he could have left school without having the chance to show such talent.

Self-supported study could give Literature students the chance to be creative, using their analytical skills in a different, beneficial way and, equally, give Language students the chance to read literature and connect it to their study of language development.

We have set up a resource room where students can book out their own reference books following a scheme of work. I intend extending this to include sample essays, past papers and cassettes, which students can access at any time during their course. I want to encourage such increased independence and oversee students taking ownership of their study. Reading outside the lesson will not be a source of embarrassment or something they never got round to. It is now an integral part of these two A-level courses.

Jane Christopher is head of English at Droitwich Spa high school, Worcestershire

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