‘Slow’ English By Geoff Barton

This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Use of English.

These are dark days for English teachers. For those of us who are veterans of the secondary classroom, we sense that English itself, the very subject that we teach, has changed. For me, it has been distorted by a hoop-jumping obsession with assessment that leaves only the boldest teachers feeling that they have the mental space and self-confidence to explore texts and language in depth. And if we don’t do depth then it’s not really English as we know it.

This year I find myself teaching A-level English Literature and Language. I have always enjoyed teaching both courses, though the Language course challenges me more. It’s not that it’s more difficult to fathom, or that the subject matter doesn’t intrinsically motivate students. It’s that it lends itself, in a way that studying literature doesn’t, to ‘delivery’ mode, to explication, to the conveying of knowledge. I find it much harder to develop the kind of exploratory approach that is so central to the study of literary texts.

But perhaps that’s just my own pedagogical insecurity, something I need to stick down as a performance management target; or perhaps I’m actually a better teacher of English Literature; or, as with most of my colleagues, perhaps our degrees in English have made the explicit study of literary texts more natural, more intuitive, more genuinely Englishy.

But given that teaching English Lit appears to come more naturally to me than anything else, it ‘s also feeling to me as if the Enlishyness of English Literature at A-level has been diminished. It’s as if I’ve been away from the house for a while and come back to find someone has moved the furniture around. It’s kind of recognisable but disorientating.

Thus we read fewer texts and they are linked to broad, and sometimes contrived, overarching themes – such as ‘The Gothic’. The way in which students will finally be assessed on them – one answer on just one text, then one which looks at but resists comparing three texts – all of this feels to me a bit tricksy, a bit phony, if I’m honest.

As I say, it doesn’t quite feel like English Literature as we once knew it.

And of course the situation at GCSE is far worse, as we all jump manically to the dismal tune of controlled assessment. Teaching The Merchant of Venice last year to a group of Year 11 students felt not so much like exploring the themes of the play, but more like a madcap game of pass-the-parcel, desperately trying to get scenes and characters unpacked ready for the impending controlled assessment that was hurtling remorselessly towards us.

It’s that notion of hurtling, the relentless emphasis on pace that worries me. Northern Italy is famous for its ‘Slow’ movement (memorably outlined in Carl Honore and Laura Brett’s Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed). It gives recognition that in a frenzied world that glorifies urgency and change, there’s something to be said for ‘slow’ – slow cooking (traditional produce in traditional recipes), slow parenting (spending more time together as a family but not feeling the need to make endless plans about what to do), slow travel (spending time getting to know a different culture), and so on.

It does feel to me as if we may have lost some aspect of this in English. Once the subject had time on its side, allowing us to explore ideas and language and to head off, if it felt right, up some pretty unexpected byways into ideas a class may never have explored before.

Yes: English in the classroom doesn’t seem quite its old self, and my guess is that there are many English teachers who – while pleased to see the Christmas 2012 YouGov poll saying that most adults believe English was their best-taught subject at school – still feel unexpectedly gloomy.

That’s because English appears to have been taken out of our hands. Since it forms such a significant element in the way schools are judged locally and nationally in performance tables, the role of Head of English and the accountability on them and their teaching team has become – in many schools – almost intolerable. English as a liberal exploration of who we are and what shapes us has, in too many schools, become something mechanistic, a conveyor-belt of activities along which our students, like those seventies consumer goods on the Generation Game, are dutifully circulated.

There’s a prevailing view that this industrial model – lessons ‘delivered’, students endlessly assessed, plus a barrage of ‘interventions’ for those not making progress – is what English should be.

English, as we knew it, feels as if has been taken out of our hands.

And all of this was brought to a conspicuous head in the late summer of 2012 when the GCSE results were published. In schools we receive the results electronically the day before they are issued in person to students. I enables us to see whether there are students who haven’t reached the grades needed for Sixth Form or college courses and to put appropriate support in place for the following day’s annual frenzy of high and low emotions.

I was in school to collect the results on Wednesday 24 August. The stakes are so high with school accountability systems that, even though I knew there wasn’t much more we could have done to help students achieve their target grades, I had slept badly, fretting about whether results in English and Maths would help us, as we expected, to be able to shrug off the threat of an early Ofsted inspection. Such are the pressures of our country’s linkage between students’ performance in examinations and judgement about school performance that even we grizzled veterans of school leadership fret endlessly about the consequences of disappointing results.

It happens that we had a technical hitch and so I hadn’t seen our school’s results by lunchtime. But I had received two highly anguished phone calls from headteacher colleagues, both saying they felt they would have to resign because their English results were, as they both put it, in separate conversations, ‘catastrophic’.

When our results came through they were 12% lower than expected – this from a stable teaching team who had the previous week, at A level, helped students to gain the best English results ever.

And through the afternoon I kept hearing from others – in schools and in advisory positions – that something was amiss with English.

I posted an innocent question that night on Twitter – something along the lines of ‘Anyone else hearing of problems with English results’. Twitter went into whatever the online equivalent of a meltdown is, the press got in touch, and next day it was problems with GCSE English marking that dominated the media coverage.

And that is largely where it stayed. Certainly hardly a week went by during the autumn term when someone wasn’t writing about the issue in a newspaper, on a blog, or covering it on television and radio. Ofqual’s two reports, both lame and unconvincing, didn’t help.

The first, from 31 August 2012, suggested that the awarding organisations were at fault in, essentially, awarding too many grade Cs in the January round of examinations which then had to be counterbalanced by more severe marking in June. Ofqual’s press release about their initial report said:

Exam regulator Ofqual’s review of this summer’s GCSE English results has concluded that while the overall subject grades awarded were correct, it believes that assessments marked in January 2012 were “graded generously”.

(http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/news/ofqual-report-on-gcse-english-results-finds-january-assessments-were-graded-generously)

Their second report, published on 2 November 2012, told a different tale. This time it was teachers who had pushed internal assessment to the limits, which had led assessors to have to compensate by shifting grade boundaries to an unprecedented extent. In other words: it was the teachers’ fault. And the comment of Ofqual’s Chief Executive, Glenys Stacey, was as patronising as it was unfair:

It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

(http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/news/poor-design-gcse-english-exam-grade-variations)

The result of the whole fiasco – woefully mismanaged by Ofqual and with a conspicuous absence of leadership from the Department for Education – meant that many English teachers spent the first part of this year feeling dismayed and disorientated. We felt we knew what a grade C looked like, and we felt a powerful injustice that candidates at different levels, but especially C-grade, were not being awarded what they should have done.

It’s part of a wider problem faced by the profession – a sense that someone somewhere thinks they know better than we do what English should be like.

And, I would suggest, it’s time to say enough is enough. Because if we are not careful, on our watch English will be allowed to lose its special status as the subject best placed to shape the next generation in terms of their thinking, their understanding of culture, their critical faculties, their expression and discrimination between what’s valuable and what is not. On our watch an unwanted new qualification – the abysmally-named English Baccalaureate Certificate – will be hatched. On our watch the heart of English will be wrenched out through a new curriculum designed by government officials rather than the profession itself.

That’s why, for me, the starting-point should be in the English Department of every secondary school asking itself a few simple questions:

What is English at our school for? What do we want our students to know and to be able to do by the time they finish here? And irrespective of any statutory curriculum or guidance, what do we see as distinctive about English in our school – what is its specialness?

These questions take us back to the essentials of English, but also put it back into the hands of the professionals, those of us who have ourselves benefited from studying English in its various forms, and who have taught it in different ways through the years.

The past year was a dispiriting one for too many associated with English. But it would be good to think that arising from the mess of the GCSE fiasco we can build on the strong work of the people behind ‘Looking for the heart of English’ (see their website at www.heartofenglish.com) and start to build a new consensus about what English is and how it should be tested.

And for all my interest in things northern Italian, with a matter of such importance as reclaiming English, there’s no excuse for ‘slow’: we need to act now, urgently.

 

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive school in Suffolk. He teaches English.

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