• Evan Symmonds

Exams & Eng Lit


Amidst all the fall-out from this year's fiasco over exam results a couple of things emerge from the background. But before coming to those, thoughts go to all of the students who've suffered such unnecessary stress and anxiety over the past months, not only the uncertainty about sitting exams and how they might be assessed, but also being required to wait until last minute decisions are made by government about actual grades being awarded. For students finishing their courses the final months have always been such a special time in terms of giving them a sense of completion, of a job well-done (mostly!) and a sense of purposeful progession to their lives as they move through all the end of year rituals towards their next stage -- university or sixth-form entry. It's been a sad tale, and given the months government had to plan for the end of the summer a shameful exercise in neglect and hardship.


Out of this, if teacher-assessment receives a boost after the decline in estimate of professionalism following the outlawing of coursework, then all to the good. Of course checks and balances will have to come in, but coursework assessment worked pretty well for most of the time that it was present. And the argument about reflecting the real world of work I think is unassailable. It's only in school that ability is assessed on a single day in a couple of hours. Real life is different; real-life runs continuous assessment.


And then a couple of weeks ago came the news that in planning ahead for next year an exam board had reduced the reading requirement for next year's syllabus, which would allow the option for teachers to elect not to study poetry. And then a few days ago there was the announcement that a similar move was proposed regarding the requirement to read whole novels. Both of these are hugely to be lamented, and I wholly endorse the statements made by poets and authors regarding the value of reading poetry in school. If I had my time again as a teacher, I'd love to design a programme that put poetry front and centre from the beginning. Reading it, learning it, reciting it, discussing it, analysing it, writing it. Facility with language is everything, equivalent to basic numeracy, or the development of physical skills of moving in space with confidence and composure.


It's a tough battle, though. The slippage from reading whole novels, particularly Victorian, to making-do with short-stories or extracts, is dangerous and worrying. Similarly the elision of poetry: it's so difficult to do well, and so rarely is. English teachers remain passionate about both of these, but the challenge is great, when the forces opposed are so great. For a couple of years I've felt that the outgoing generation of sixth-form students is the last one for whom reading has been a normal part of their experience. Every school librarian knows the story: the youngsters read, for a while, and then all the other pressures of young adolescence creep in and it's seldom that young people pick up a book to read. English lessons and library activities help immensely, but the decline in reading amongst the youngsters is certainly there, and if we don't help the older teenagers to read by giving them access to more complex and ambitious thoughts, then the battle is lost. I'm sure the adults will settle for what's online forever.


Of course, some students will read. Some students you can't stop. But their in the minority, and even within A level classes of English Literature. Most won't read around; most won't read a second book by their second author. Most want crib-notes. I don't know what the answer is, but reducing the curriculm, undermining the teachers and screwing up assessment is not it.


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