Of all the components contributing to national qualifications in English, surely the writing portfolio offers the most genuine and authentic snapshot of a pupil’s ability in the real world.
Here, there is no value in rote-learning quotations or producing formulaically structured answers. The portfolio mimics the writing process, as experienced by – you know – adult humans, with planning, drafting, editing and redrafting being prominent. It also offers students perhaps the best opportunity in any subject to showcase personality and individual voice.
In the broadly discursive element, it’s disheartening to see screeds of students plumping for topics that appear to neither interest nor engage them. There appears to be a subconscious desire to write about topics that students think the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) wants to see. Nothing kills a portfolio quite like a tedious parroting of issues surrounding capital punishment or euthanasia, yet students can struggle to look beyond such topics.
It seems that some suffer from a chronic lack of political and societal literacy; newspapers and current affairs are simply not familiar enough for students to be able to dig into the many topical and nuanced issues surrounding them.
There are some essay topics that I wholeheartedly wish to ban. I would rather not read about animal welfare, and pray that the death in 2017 of Tilikum the killer whale, tragic hero of the documentary film Blackfish, may have turned the tide on this topic’s recent popularity. No more essays on social media’s pros and cons, please, especially when written by students who spend every stolen moment between classes desperately thumbing at their phones. No more justifying the stratospheric rise in footballers’ wages – I will never be convinced and couldn’t give a monkey’s how many hours a day Cristiano Ronaldo spends submerged up to his Adam’s apple in an ice bucket. I could definitely live without any more essays on Brexit, although the whole Trump conundrum is probably decent satirical fodder for a few more years.
What would I prefer to see? The story of the BBC’s sexist salaries is bound to produce some powerful essays. How about the rise of AI? The impact of the plastic-bag charge? An investigation into the moral implications of labradoodles?
In truth, it doesn’t matter what students write about, so long as their voice is clear and engaging. I desperately try to communicate to my classes the need to have an opinion and a message, and I spend a lot of time highlighting the importance of structure, especially beginnings and endings. Also, the SQA stresses the idea of a “broad church” when it comes to genre – I get the impression that a little blurring of the traditional argumentative/persuasive and reflective/imaginative lines is more than welcome.
Most of all, though, the ideas and the craft are what matters.
Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow