Wanted: a hero with vision

13th February 1998 at 00:00
My GCSE English lessons are haunted by a scene from the third Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. It is the scene where the great slobbering, all-devouring slug monster Jabba the Hutt has Princess Leia chained by the neck. Every time she tries to get away from Jabba he jerks her back. Ultimately she faces being pitched to her doom into a pit.

Teaching the new GCSE English syllabus, I feel just like Princess Leia. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority created this monster two years ago and now all the nation's English teachers, students and exam boards are its prisoners. We are shackled to a myriad of assessment criteria, a list of prescribed authors and a rigid testing regime.

This year I am teaching a bottom set in Year 11 and a top set in Year 10 and this syllabus fails us at both levels. My top set students are limited and frustrated by it. My bottom set students find it impenetrable and demoralising.

For weak students it compounds their literacy difficulties and exacerbates boys' tendency for disaffection. It is designed to show that they are failures.

Pupils must be tested in nine types of reading, from Shakespeare and pre-20th century texts to media and non-fiction texts. This makes lessons a kind of lunacy where I struggle to force them through the hoops of syllabus requirements.

Do not get me wrong. There is much to applaud in the philosophy of the new syllabus: the inclusion of media education, the exploration of literature from other cultures and the wider reading principle. But a syllabus dominated by the terminal examination and its mark scheme favours thought-bytes in an exam hall rather than the more penetrating thinking and learning that coursework offers.

I can think of a dozen texts that I could use to inspire my students and cultivate their love of reading, but I am not allowed to use them.

I am tethered to this arbitrary prescribed list of pre-20th century authors, most of whom wrote nothing remotely accessible to a 16-year-old who finds reading an alien activity.

Then there is my top set - students you can set alight with the excitement of reading, with new ideas, with the rhythms of the written word. This term I launched into our wider reading study - a comparison of Gulliver's Travels with Animal Farm, focusing on the power of satire.

We read with smiles and frowns the convoluted messages of Swift's brilliant text. My students were wrestling with new ideas they had never considered before. We were sailing with Swift and Gulliver on the breeze of intellectual discovery.

And then I remembered. The wider reading and Shakespeare coursework each carry a miserable 3.3 per cent of the marks. Our penetrating study of Gulliver was worth a pitiful 1.5 per cent. I was made to feel that this pursuit of learning was an indulgence.

Had not our moderator warned us: "If Shakespeare only counts for 3.3 per cent of the marks, do Shakespeare as an oral assignment. That'll do."

But that'll do what? We are shackled to a monster. Someone with vision needs to set us free.

Barrie Day is head of English atNewman School, Carlisle

If you have a strong opinion on acurriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY


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