Withering heights

26th September 2003 at 01:00
A-levels students are reading less and having less fun, says Mike Dixon

One of the aims of Curriculum 2000 was to "facilitate breadth and specialisation of learning". In pursuit of this, we have seen many schools and colleges encourage the taking of four AS-levels in the first year.

While no-one would fail to applaud increased flexibility, variety and participation in the post-16 curriculum, it is deeply disturbing to reflect on what has been lost in terms of breadth.

For a subject like English, a unit-based credit system linked to rigidly applied, reductive assessment objectives has been a disaster. A comparison of the syllabus followed at my college in the 1990s with the Curriculum 2000 version will show why.

In the mid-1990s we used a specification that required students to study 14 or 15 texts. A student taking English ASA2 today will study about eight.

In 1993 students were required to submit a coursework folder containing eight coursework essays on different texts and a 3,000 word essay comparing at least two more texts. They were also examined on a further four texts and took another comprehension and appreciation examination based on unseen passages of poetry and prose. It was a high quality course that was neither narrow nor overly prescriptive.

The 1993 Common Examination consisted of Shakespeare, drama, poetry and prose. We taught Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale; drama: Our Country's Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker; poetry: "The Miller's Tale", Chaucer; prose: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bront The coursework consisted of eight essays including a second Shakespeare and a non-fiction text. One text could be a translation and we always took advantage of that option. Over the two-year course we taught the following: Measure for Measure, Shakespeare; Beloved, Toni Morrison; The Doll's House, Ibsen; DH Lawrence, non-fiction writing on education; Selected Poetry, Kit Wright; On Yankee Station, William Boyd short story collection; Ariel, Sylvia Plath; and The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood The extended essay was negotiated by the student and teacher and was a sustained piece of criticism comparing at least two texts. The starting point would often be thematic and reflected a student's enthusiasm.

For the 2002-2004 specification we are studying: Unit 1 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bront ; Unit 2 Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller and John Donne, Selected Poems; Unit 3 Shakespeare coursework, King Lear; Unit 4 Our Country's Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker and English Passengers, Matthew Kneale (a college coursework choice); Unit 5 Chaucer, "The General Prologue" and Shakespeare, Measure for Measure; and Unit 6, the synoptic unit based on pre-release material consisting of a range of texts and unseen material on the question paper Put simply, our current students will read half as much literature as their counterparts from the early 1990s. What makes matters worse is that centres are forced to adhere slavishly to the assessment objectives for each unit.

We have always had assessment criteria and these are vital if we are to achieve any kind of standardisation but some of the assessment objectives in the new specification appear to be influenced by the belief that A-level English literature has to prepare students for the literary theory obsessed world of English studies in universities.

Thanks to the new assessment objectives my group knows everything there is to know about John Donne's "The Flea" and they are experts on the debt Arthur Miller owed to 19th-century Norwegian realism and German expressionism, but where is the real breadth? Where is the sense that after two years of involvement with English A-level a student has experienced an exciting, eclectic range of literature?

We need a fundamental review of the aims of English literature. We need to start trusting teachers again so we can increase the amount of internally assessed, externally moderated coursework. We need assessment objectives that encourage students to develop their interest and enjoyment in literature through reading widely. Finally we need to give literature back to students and teachers along with the freedom to do Shakespeare in September and Zadie Smith in October. We need to get the fun back into the classroom.

Mike Dixon is vice-principal of Park College, Eastbourne

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