Why exam boards are like grouse

12th August 2005 at 01:00
John Law says it's time to stop the annual sniping and appreciate the vital work that he and his fellow English examiners are doing

Today is the glorious 12th: the time of year when the nation undertakes two of its favourite bloodsports: grouse shooting and kicking awarding bodies.

The first I find repulsive for many reasons; the second is, I suppose, inevitable yet sad.

Like the popping of 12-bores, letters hit the press and pundits appear on radio and television telling us that exams are too easy, marking is outrageously poor, standards are falling, the needs of society, industry, universities or individuals (delete as appropriate) are not being met. Some of the letters sent by centres to the awarding bodies are positively vitriolic.

If you are polishing your toe-caps in readiness, could I ask you to pause and consider the situation a little more sympathetically? As far as I know, grouse do not actually shoot each other. What many complaining teachers seem to forget is that examinations are run almost completely by fellow teachers.

Take, for example, the examination for which I act as chair of examiners: AQA GCSE English. I chair the meetings at which question papers are scrutinised and approved a year before they are sat; I chair the meetings at which the final awards for each of our 500,000 candidates are finally decided; when satisfied I sign a piece of paper assuring the director general of AQA that standards have been carried over from the previous year. I am, of course, paid by AQA to do this, but I remain principally an English teacher at St Anselm's Catholic school in Canterbury. All the chief examiners for the three AQA English GCSEs are experienced teachers or ex-teachers. Their teams - in total nearly 3,000 examiners - are virtually all practising or ex-teachers.

My experience of examining over 20 years or so tells me that the vast majority of those who mark papers are committed and enthusiastic. They want the best for their own students and, if this means working with several thousand like-minded colleagues, they will do this.

Another role of the awarding bodies, - and perhaps the one least appreciated - is subject development. Some might say that awarding bodies exist simply to devise and conduct tests, not decide on what is taught, but the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recognises that the thousands of English teachers who act as examiners are a huge pool of expertise which it would be ridiculous not to tap.

Consequently, AQA has been asked to present its views on "English 21", the content of the English curriculum for the 21st century, and on what exactly should constitute "functional English", without mastery of which, it is proposed, it will not be possible to "pass" GCSE English.

Recently I took part in meetings of senior examiners and members of AQA's standing Subject Advisory Committee (experts from all areas of the English curriculum) at which we tried to define "functional English" and to decide how it might be examined in 2015. Debate, as it always is with English teachers, was lively and polarized.

When it comes to deciding what functional English should be, there seem to be two opposed schools of thought. At one extreme there are those who take a purely pragmatic view: the skills needed to cope in business and trade, to read and write instructions and reports in accurate standard English.

This view is frequently reported by further education teachers in representing the views of their students.

At the other extreme is a more liberal, certainly broader view: it is impossible to function as a responsible, participating citizen without having a knowledge of our culture, and to do this, students must understand, among other things, its varieties of language and literature.

No one seems prepared to compromise.

If there is a consensual view at AQA it is that functional English should cover the improvement of skills for life, work and leisure, helping candidates to become effective citizens in a democratic society.

Whatever functional English eventually turns out to be, however, AQA's English specialists argue that testing it must include speaking and listening and written coursework as well as an exam paper.

Since it seems to have been decided that to "fail" the functional element would preclude "passing" GCSE at the present equivalent of a C grade, the "functional" element should be an integral part of the full GCSE course as well as being available separately to other learners. Furthermore, AQA feels, the present two-tier system of GCSE examining would be no longer appropriate when very specific skills are being tested, and ought to be replaced by a single tier system as at the earlier key stages.

AQA would also like to see changes in the national curriculum English standing orders. A simpler examination structure is envisaged. At present, it is assumed that it is not possible to assess reading and writing in the same piece of work. But is this true? In real life teachers do this all the time. Do the present reading and writing triplets really describe the purposes for which people actually read and write, or are they effectively arbitrary? Is it the proper function of awarding bodies to police the teaching of the National Curriculum? Does every curriculum requirement have to be tested at GCSE? Would sampling not suffice?

AQA's view is that a much simpler structure, with fewer tasks, could be used to assess GCSE candidates, which would include testing functional English.

A modular system might give candidates the opportunity to develop their interests in specific directions.

Whatever the case, AQA strongly believes in keeping the healthy system of offering centres a variety of English syll-abuses through a number of awarding bodies presenting alternative specifications for each subject; a single nationwide specification would satisfy no one.

John Law is chair of examiners for AQA GCSE English

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