It was never going to be a smooth ride, but teachers across the country have been preparing as best they can for the autumn term, despite uncertainties surrounding local lockdowns, whether masks are needed, and how exams will go ahead. The last minute guidance and rapid u-turns we have all been adjusting to, seem to have only just got started. After very explicit guidance from OFQUAL about changes to the GCSE English Literature curriculum, namely a choice of dropping one text (excluding Shakespeare) from the teaching load, they have thrown a curve ball. Many schools have been back for two weeks and catch-up lessons have begun in earnest, and yet AQA have chimed in at the eleventh hour, warning that not only is Shakespeare compulsory, but so is poetry!
Many school opted to drop poetry, not because (as the media would have us believe) it's deemed unfashionable, or uninteresting, or unimportant, but because it was the text most affected by the lockdown for many schools who tried to remotely engage students to understand FIFTEEN poems. Yes that's right - the purely closed-book GCSE exam features 4 texts: a Shakespeare play, a modern drama/novel and a 19th century novel as well as a collection of fifteen poems. Let's not dwell on the fact that testing english via rote memory is a spectacularly inefficient way of examining student understanding, and think about the language used in 19th century literature. If you've got through a Dickens novel without once requiring a dictionary, I commend you and you deserve an honorary degree for the feat. Memorising a whole text in modern english is hard enough, without the complication of archaic terms and insanely complicated sentence structures.
I am passionate about this and I am angry, and you should be too.
I admit, it is incredibly difficult to know what to do for the best to ensure these kids get the opportunity to display their knowledge in the fairest and most standardised fashion, but there has to be an alternative. How about keeping the texts and making all english exams open book, not just this year, but always. What is the advantage of trying to cram entire narratives with quotations, on top of all of the facts required for the other 10 subjects these fifteen and sixteen year olds are expected to cope with? I am passionate about this and I am angry, and you should be too. This is not just the future of an entire generation, already marred by the effects of an ongoing pandemic, and it is not just the impact of exam stress and anxieties, this is the moment to put welfare and wellbeing ahead of league tables. And that is not solely the responsibility of the schools. The exam boards must acknowledge that the damaging and frankly incomprehensible changes being made at such short notice will cause massive problems across the country.
Another more effective measure would be to reintroduce coursework into the curriculum, which gives students who don't perform well under exam conditions (I was one of these students) an opportunity to show off their research and writing skills. Yes, in the past, coursework has been criticised for the ease at which external help can be accessed, giving some students an advantage, but the disadvantage of marking attainment only through final exams is surely more problematic. Had coursework not existed in maths and science, for example, when I did my GCSEs, there is no doubt I would have failed. These subjects are of course important, but I still excelled at university, an opportunity I wouldn't have had as a C in maths was required for further study.
We need to be creative and we need to be critical in the way we approach education. We cannot afford to sit back and allow the shambles of the so-called leading institutions in education and government to continue such mass disruption of the lives of so many young and promising people. Let's collaborate and find ways to respond to this crisis, just as we have for the pandemic.
If they are the future, we need to be the foundation.