The mass ceiling for children in England who study English at school is a GCSE language paper of some kind.
Many will also do a literature paper, but it’s the language paper that is English society’s rubber stamp, the seal of approval supposed to indicate that a child is linguistically licensed to fly, as it were. Like it or not, this single examination, and the course of study leading up to it, is a major academic hurdle in that much-underrated university of life.
I’ve recently drawn attention here to the disturbing reality that technology has not just disrupted entire businesses, like retail and journalism, but it is quietly busy, hacking away at the roots of language itself. Why bother to think and write a reflective sentence or two, when you can cut and paste an animation of a Hollywood star gurning, an orangutan slapping its own face or a psychopathic kitten with murderous intent? Why bother to reach across the keyboard for that special word when all you really need is a small, bloated little crimson heart?
Researching this column, I consciously had to stop myself from searching online for that inevitable cabal of app developers and edupreneurs out there, who are seriously preparing a “thought piece” arguing that GCSE English examiners should reward the use of emojis.
So before they hide the snake oil behind brushed aluminium yet again, what I want to do is forestall them by asking, what constitutes reasonable English teaching in an age of social media-fuelled unreason? Does a GCSE in English really equip a child today for the way language is being used and where they will really encounter it?
A new vision for GCSE English language
Read carefully through the GCSE English specifications for a number of major exam boards and the common threads become obvious, even where individual papers have different titles like "Communicating Information and Ideas" or "Non-fiction and Transactional Writing". There is a shared concern to encourage the study of a range of texts from the 19th century to the present day, which provide both exemplars for children to analyse and models for them to imitate. At its simplest, the English GCSE asks children to prove that they understand how a piece of effective writing works before writing something effective for themselves.
There simply isn’t room here to quote generously from them, but to give you a flavour of what boards believe they are delivering, here are a couple of extracts from their specifications.
For one well-known board: GCSE English "is designed to help learners explore communication, culture and creativity, to develop independent and critical thinking and to engage with the richness of our language and literary heritage… learners will develop the skills to read fluently and write effectively".
Another states: "A key aim of this specification is to encourage candidates to produce high-quality texts in their Writing responses. There is a slightly heavier weighting on the non-fiction Reading and Writing in Component 2 than on the literature and creative writing in Component 1, in order to ensure that skills for work, life and further education are prioritised."
It’s that focus on writing successfully that I want to challenge. Roughly 50 per cent of English teachers’ time and effort going into teaching pupils how texts work, and how to convince an exam marker they’ve learned all that, remains a sound investment, just about.
Much of what those pupils will be reading for themselves soon after leaving school will actually be far more hysterical, unstructured and truncated than anything they’ve studied at key stage 3 or 4. Social media is to nuance what grafitti is to draftsmanship.
But the other 50 per cent of any English GCSE examination usually rewards writing. After studying the assessment objectives for various boards, I found myself questioning the educational value supposedly inherent in 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 many more hours on the research in advance? How many professional speech writers write speeches for themselves?
Even more pertinently, 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 speech writing?
This weird 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.
Silicon Valley has taken us halfway there already with English. Those bright, colourful, creative strips of potential – words themselves – are being so clumsily twisted and routinely mangled by technology, that unless the guardians of English – all those teachers who care passionately about language, about what it can achieve – step in and do something, the end result will be a language bleached of all colour, too bland to work with and too dull to care about.
You can only step back from the edge once you’ve seen the danger.
Perhaps it’s time the English curriculum, and most pertinently the key examination that is its crowning achievement, reduced that 50 per cent writing requirement to about 25 per cent, and only set tasks that were 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. Then the additional 25 per cent of time gained could be spent on teaching young teenagers that it’s not just vital they learn how writing works, but how to defend themselves from all those who now unapologetically use it to manipulate, deceive or politicise them.
Any anxious child turning up at school in August to collect that all-important English rubber stamp shouldn’t just feel they can fly; they should feel like the GCSE English course they studied put each and every one of them at the controls of an Apache helicopter.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.