In this age of fake news, GCSE English is our line of defence

11th January 2019 at 00:00

Does a GCSE in English language equip a child today for the way that language is being used and where they will really encounter it? No.

Usually, 50 per cent of an English GCSE examination rewards writing. After studying the assessment objectives for various boards, I found myself questioning the educational value of the writing tasks.

Pupils are asked to write news articles, speeches or stories, or are even just instructed to “write about” something. One exam board offers them images, presumably as some kind of inspiration or, dare I snowflake it, trigger.

How many professional writers knock out a complete short story in an hour? How many professional journalists cobble together a credible news article in 60 minutes without spending hours on the research in advance? How many professional speechwriters write speeches for themselves?

And how many of the assessment professionals who, without doubt, exert themselves to produce valid, reliable and fair English examinations can honestly claim professional expertise in fiction, journalism or speechwriting?

This discrepancy has been around for as long as I can remember. How much weirder is it now in a cultural climate where news itself is suspect and the English language as malleable as every small child’s favourite creative substance, Plasticine. Play with that stuff too much and we all recognise the bland, disappointingly intractable lump of nothing you end up with.

Perhaps it’s time for the English curriculum – and the key examination that is its crowning achievement – to only set tasks that are genuinely age-appropriate.

No more speeches, stories or news articles; something a little more helpful than “write about” and a little less like experimental dance. The time gained could be spent on teaching young teenagers that it’s vital they learn not just how writing works, but how to defend themselves from all those who now unapologetically use it to manipulate, deceive or politicise them.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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