English should be riding into a renaissance right now.
We have untiered GCSEs that are accessible and rewarding for the weakest learners while challenging and ripe with cultural capital for the ablest. Yet entries into A-level English declined sharply again in 2018. GCSE resit teachers are now meeting another cohort of learners for whom the joy of English has been near-permanently extinguished.
There are numerous factors at work here, from the cold utilitarianism of “relevancy” to the lack of ambassadors for the discipline compared to physics with its Coxes, computing with its Zuckerbergs, or politics with seemingly every MP coming through the PPE route.
However, I believe the greatest damage has been done through the approach to centre assessment taken by many schools prior to the new, entirely-examined, 9-1 specifications. English fell into a very bad place when the brinkmanship of cheating controlled assessments or iGCSE coursework became a mark of brash pride for a cult of English heads who would speak openly about their methods and who employed little subtlety.
When a student who worked hard for an E would be dragged into an office and emerge half an hour later with an A-grade essay, nobody’s fooled and the only lesson learned is the worst lesson possible.
For short-term gains, gaming accountability systems, the impact on student perception of English can’t be underestimated. It undermined genuine understanding, insight, or creativity. Instead of encouraging students to hone their skills, it was compliance and copying that were most-highly rewarded. In turn, a whole generation of English teachers de-skilled themselves. They neglected the practice of actual teaching while becoming experts at writing assessments through their student proxies.
It had a bitter knock-on effect for colleges until the legacy and iGCSE specifications finally bowed out last year. Students would arrive for resit classes with a D-grade, but it would soon be obvious that despite years of Send and pupil premium cheques, nobody up until that point had ever tried teaching the student how to read or write. With 40 per cent of the grade determined by the school, a D overall might reflect an A-grade coursework folder and an F-grade exam.
In 2014, at the lowest point in this nationwide scandal, I’d noticed a suspiciously spikey profile in a local school’s data and took the opportunity to get hold of the raw notes from their Ofsted inspection. It was quite unbelievable reading.
'Mismatch between levels and work'
Had I been the inspector, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to hide my incredulity at the claim by the school’s head of English that despite their previous year’s 54 per cent C+ attainment, they were projecting 90 per cent for their Year 10 cohort. Indeed, there were obviously questions raised, as an inspector did note a “mismatch between levels and work in books” so at the end of the first day of inspection the Ofsted team quite wisely requested to see “Year 10 coursework in English – to cross-reference with work in class.”
Day two. Inspectors meet with the head of English. “No work from lesson [redacted] available.” I think it’s safe to assume this was the lesson where they noted the mismatch.
“Printed out work requested but only one piece available. The rest on a memory stick at the home of the head of English.”
Well, I guess this was pre-GDPR.
“No handwritten book work available. Head of English says he keeps this at home.”
It could have done worse
Now, like you, I’m imagining the inspector writing these notes while laughing at the brazen cheek and getting ready to ring up Ofqual on speed dial. But these were the days when every aspect of inspection was individually graded and that meeting was graded "3"...That’s right. It could have gone worse. It wasn’t inadequate.
In fairness to Ofsted, the entire inspection team was made up of "additional inspectors"; a type of sub-contractor, notoriously unreliable, and disbanded in 2015. But that’s little comfort to those of us who were at that time quixotically bleeding ourselves dry to keep our students ahead of the bell curve while not abandoning our ethics and while trying to keep the joy of English alive.
There should be no amnesty for centres that cheated English coursework. They’re easy to spot: look for those moaning most loudly about the 9-1. They’ve probably had quite a drop in their results. A drop to rival the 16,000 fewer students taking an English A level compared to 2013.
If there is no accountability, it will happen again. I’m already hearing murmurs from examiner friends that they are seeing similar responses appear over and over in the GCSE-exam writing tasks. In other words, centres are teaching stock answers by rote, cynically exploiting the very freedom and accessibility of the new GCSE that we should be using to maximise the enjoyment of English.
I remain hopeful though. Perversely, in colleges the GCSE resit policy is giving us the chance to undo some of the damage by providing an experience that’s different, and engaging, and that develops the confidence of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners in our facilitating and transformative subject. We can make English great again.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE