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Too old to be saved?

Former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson wants the essay format revived. Bethan Marshall looks at the pros and cons of this idea

The humble essay has been a neglected art form for the past 50 years. Yet, at its best, it provides impassioned reason, cogent argument couched in a language which gives its content perfect articulation.

A good essay takes the reader by the hand and guides them through the initial posing of a question or observation via an interplay of evidence and analysis, to a kind of rest at the conclusion. And now Mike Tomlinson, according to his recent speech at the Girls' Schools Association, wants to see it as the central plank of the new-style A-level.

The recent rekindling of interest in the early 19th century writer Hazlitt, one of the form's chief exponents, is an indication that the essay may be enjoying something of a revival as the object of serious criticism.

Yet, contrary to the impression given by Tomlinson, the essay has always been the mainstay of the public examination system at A-level in the arts and humanities.

Because the essay demands the coherent structuring of extended thought through the interweaving of form, style and content, it has always seemed to be a good way of assessing aptitude in subjects such as English and history. For these require not just an acquaintance with the facts but an ability to develop an idea supported by those facts. To take, as it were, a line for a walk in a way that a short answer or multiple-choice response never could.

The discipline involved in the process of writing can itself help the writer work through what they think about a particular issue. As someone famously wrote (the quote is attributed to a vast array of authors): "How do I know what I think until I have written it?"

Unlike a report, or a short answer, the essay has at its heart an opinion.

It takes a view. But the success of the essay is dependent on the extent to which knowledge is displayed in the articulation of that view. In this way, the marker of an essay is able to see how much a student knows, what they have understood conceptually and, in theory, how well they think within any given discipline.

It is for this reason that universities like the essay format because they believe it is the best way of sorting out the sheep from the goats. It helps them to pick the brightest and the best.

For some, however, the idea that the exam essay will provide such evidence of ability is highly problematic. To begin with, it is deemed to give the middle classes an advantage. This view first found currency after Basil Bernstein suggested that those who used what he described as an "elaborated code" at home, which involved reasoning, may find essays easier to write.

Shirley Bryce Heath's study of three different communities also suggested that the backgrounds of some children better fitted them for the literacy demands of schools than others. So recently the traditional exam essay, "Why does Hamlet delay? Discuss", has been supplanted by an initial question which may well look the same but which has attached to it a series of prompts which virtually amount to an essay plan.

Although the extended essay remains, much of the thinking appears to have been done for the candidate. It is this trend to which Tomlinson's remarks appear to be addressed. But his solution provides an answer to the wrong question. He wants exams to test the brightest. What he should be looking for is an assessment system that finds out what pupils have learned and are capable of.

The problem with exams in the arts is that essays are timed. It is the demand that all that thinking should be done at speed and from memory.

Exams appear designed to establish what the student has forgotten or cannot do.

The ability to martial ideas at speed is important but it is a different skill from being able to think originally, say, about the place of politics in Emma. The nature of exams make students and teachers alike play safe and cram for the test, so the scope of the essay is limited.

The chance to be "random, chancy, sparky", as the critic and Hazlitt fan Tom Paulin would have the essay be, is lost. It is still a neglected form and Mr Tomlinson's reforms will not revive it.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English education at King's College, London

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