English teaching – Paradise Lost?

In her article in The Guardian, Susanna Rustin asks the question, “Are (students) being put off by the way the Government says it (English) must be taught?”


The answer, for anyone who has taught examination groups in Secondary, or in Primary schools working towards Year 6 assessments over the last five years or so, must be a resounding yes, yes, yes. Where there used to be job satisfaction now lies frustration, boredom and anger. Joy, once a regular companion on the road in English lessons, is now a rare visitor. When it does come, it is considered a distraction, an irrelevance, a false friend. Internal observations, performance management, analysis of exam results and residuals have no time for this imposter. So irrelevant is it, that there is no metric to measure it. And without measurement, there can be no value.

This arid wasteland has been coming for a long time. The ideological tide has turned and there has been an inexorable sense that incremental changes, in themselves often individually justifiable and manageable, together are being used to create a model that is brutally functional, with no room for beauty, or the shiver of emotion that a handful of crafted words can produce. At Primary school, young children are frog marched through parts of speech, and the disembodied parsing of their own language so that they can spot a prepositional phrase at five hundred yards. I take my hat off to Primary colleagues who have had to wade through all of this nonsense while still managing to preserve a love of reading amongst their charges.

Then we have the fool’s gold of assessment without levels, provoking an enormous waste of teacher hours and ingenuity to come up with a multitude of systems that are impossible to compare and are less precise and accurate than the system they replaced. Many of these new approaches were, in reality, levels with a different label. There seems to have been a new orthodoxy established here, and I have visited many schools where the GCSE grading system has simply been adopted from Year 7. This compounds the idea that everything in school, from the minute the child enters, is geared to their final product or outcome, their GCSE grade. So once the common grading system has spread across the school community, GCSE style assessments and texts follow. Students in Year 7 begin to tackle “GCSE style” exam questions, on language and literature to better prepare them for the final ordeal. They analyse Victorian non-fiction texts for structural devices. Extended writing, where students have the space to develop ideas and sustain them over several pages, has gone the way of the quill and VHS recorder. And when the few students who have retained their interest in books arrive at their first few A level lessons, they are frightened by the demands of an A level coursework essay, which seems inordinately “long.”

The new Assessment Gods also decreed that “Best Fit” assessment was dreadfully old- fashioned and not fit for purpose because Teacher Assessment of children’s reading was wildly at odds with test scores. No, that was woolly liberal thinking, the product of Gove’s Blob. Mastery Assessment was the thing. As blindingly obvious as a populist’s analysis of the impact of immigration and just as helpful and accurate. What a con! I have struggled in vain to get my head around mastery assessment. I’ve tried to go beyond nodding my head and saying, of course students must know one lesser thing, before they can progress on to the next higher thing. Clearly, everything must aggregate incrementally, so that bit by bit, the grains of sand accumulate to form a mountain of knowledge. Secure knowledge that is. And from this flows the obvious conclusion, that students must be held back, protected from knowledge they can’t possibly grasp, until they have mastered the simpler knowledge. What nonsense. This is not the way people learn. They learn haltingly, unpredictably, differentially. Mastery assessment was a gift to hundreds of charlatan CPD providers (“Mastery teaching in Geography.” Only £275 per course delegate, with discount for early booking) but not much more. I might be wrong, but no-one has explained it to me satisfactorily yet. Certainly not Mr Oates.

Best fit, certainly in English, is a much more useful concept that allows professional teachers to exercise judgement, balance strengths and weaknesses and arrive at a considered grade. Unfortunately, judgement and balance imply a lack of rigour, a subjectivity, a lack of irrefutable evidence. The idea that criteria- based assessment, examinations and mark schemes provide more reliable and valid assessments of students’ achievement is fanciful. That is just the justification, however. The real pull of the number for the accountability gurus is the fact that it can be aggregated, to provide system wide judgements. This assessment is not for the benefit of the student, it is a mechanism to judge (and find wanting) teachers, schools, and local authorities. Though not, interestingly, Academies. I prefer to go back to Myra Barrs and think, “Words not Numbers” http://ioe.academia.edu/MyraBarrs

This new assessment brutalism has been accompanied by the new GCSE specifications. No tiers of entry. No texts allowed in the Literature exams. Complex questions, highly demanding reading requirement and great pressure of time has produced a system where Senior Managements, and hard- pressed Heads of English, have to plan their delivery of the spec, usually over three years with endless repetitions of exam practice. Drill, drill, drill. Schools where students spend a year learning their key literature text. No-one has yet explained to me how making the exam harder means that standards rise. The necessity to keep the same percentage grade distribution between the old spec and the new clearly shows that standards haven’t risen. Once again, UK education reverts to type, serving brilliantly the top 40% and failing miserably the bottom 60%. Its no surprise, but a tragic policy consequence, when students are delighted to wave good bye to the books they have been battered with for two or three years and vow never to pick up a book again.

Meanwhile, as Rustin reminds us, there has been a crisis of teacher recruitment. I’ll leave to one side the dog’s dinner that is Tory policy on this area. The supply of trainee teachers has virtually dried up, with the latest figures telling us that between 40 and 50 % of teachers leave teaching within their first five years. In a previous life, as a Secondary Deputy Head, I interviewed many candidates for jobs who told horror stories about the harsh and bullying regimes in some of the best- known Academy chains, who seemed to have an explicit policy of burning young teachers out, with a view to getting two or three cheap years out of them before getting rid. This has also impacted on English teaching. The Male English teacher is a particularly rare beast, at a time when positive male role models are more important than ever. The Male English teacher is fast becoming as endangered as the word’s insect population.

It’s a toxic cocktail: salary stagnation, oppressive and bullying accountability regimes, grindingly dull officially -sanctioned teaching approaches, a supply of trainees that has turned into a trickle. English teaching was always a very demanding job, requiring real dedication and a willingness to go the extra mile and burn the midnight oil, but it’s compensations more than made up for the sacrifice. The classroom was a crucible of creativity and regeneration and kept us all, students and teachers, coming back for more. I fear that it will take a long time, and a concerted effort to change a mechanistic, functional culture, to repair the damage that has already been done. I’m afraid that the worst is yet to come.