Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dan Bottom


In terms of the accuracy of the marking of English, it is at best, fairly poor (a reflection of who the exam boards allow to mark, the incredibly short turnaround to mark scripts during term time and the ridiculous decision to allow online marking of English papers—how anyone can be expected to determine a candidate’s ability by seeing only what is on the few inches of screen in front of their noses is beyond me...). Since 2010 the new specifications in English language and literature have marked a slightly more logical progression from GCSE to A Level Literature, with the same assessment objectives being used. GCSE English language still has very little to do with linguistics, yet paradoxically is the measure for A*—C, despite Oxbridge and other top universities requiring A Level literature, not language, to gain access to the study of English at a higher level. The examinations, especially Unit 1 for GCSE English/English language is very, very formulaic which will help raise levels of mediocrity (ie squeezing C grades out of D grade candidates) whilst stifling the most able students. Also, every school leadership team, head of department, teacher (and often students and their parents too) know that some exam boards give students an easier ride than others...this is all that the exam board market place has created; unfair, skewed results where one student’s grade is less equal than another.

Finally, bullet point three gets to heart of the problem posed by a plethora of awarding bodies; they compete for business in a market place where success is determined by student outcomes. Inevitably, schools will migrate to the exam board where students secure the highest grade. A very clear example of this came under the legacy specification in English, where AQA assessed poetry in an examination and WJEC allowed it to be assessed via coursework. Naturally, schools took the path of least resistance and lumped their students through poetry coursework to the detriment of their understanding of poetry itself. As for examination fees, these are an inevitable part of the current system, but the fee for remarks seems terribly high for what seems to be a furtive, opaque system that has no proper scrutiny whatsoever. Textbooks produced by the exam boards and publishing houses are extremely expensive, dull and, by their very nature, reduce English to a mosaic of excerpts and fragmented texts. It is bad enough that examinations, AFL and the OfSTED inspection culture have almost wiped away the simple act of reading a novel or play from end to end over a number of lessons, without paying for text books that do this too.

1. To what extent is the learning potential of very able students limited by the current crop of examinations, OfSTED and AfL?

1.1 An apology to begin with: “intelligence” in whatever guise does exist, therefore its antithesis must also exist, but our language struggles to cope with this in a courteous way. The antonym for intelligence is often given as “stupidity”; however we all know tales of the stupid academic who can explore the universe without being able to tie their laces. Conversely, Shakespeare’s most insightful characters often were the “fools”. Notwithstanding the linguistic asymmetry inherent in any study of intelligence, or the vogue for classifying multiple intelligences, for the purposes of this paper, by “intelligent” I refer to students who have the potential, or demonstrate the ability, to explore the upper echelons of the academic study of English literature or language. What exactly constitutes the “academic study of English” will be guided by, but not limited to, the vagaries of the curriculum as imposed on education by the National Curriculum and its (often illogical) interpretation by exam boards who determine, through their specifications and assessments, what students are required to demonstrate in order to achieve success.

2. What is AfL?

2.1 A strategy that encourages the “learning” of students to be measured continually so that a clear progression in their learning can be achieved; once, and only once, they have demonstrated a secure grasp of a given concept, skill, or factual detail do they move forward to the next stage. To achieve these steps, students are provided with the criteria against which their learning will be measured. Successful examples of, say, essays are given in advance so that students can understand exactly what it is that they will be expected to do themselves. Past papers and questions that mimic likely tasks will be practised often, with the students’ responses measured, either by the teacher, peers, or themselves, against success criteria. Sounds very sensible and it is very seductive.

But, and there must always be a but, does it encourage independence, creativity and flair, the demonstration of which must be the determiner for success at the highest academic level?

2.2 A very bright student is told that they will be given an exam question such as: what effect do the headline, sub heading and images in the extract (a newspaper article on charitable work in a drought torn African community) have? The AfL approach to preparation for such a question would advocate sharing and analysing the mark scheme, applying this to model answers by trying to determine how many marks it would have received, then explicitly identifying the successful features of said response, before attempting their own response and seeing how that fared against the mark scheme. All very logical...

2.3 Now, what would a supremely intelligent individual make of this? Maybe, the constraints being placed upon them ought to be explored. Firstly, the question itself necessarily requires the effect of the language and the images on a hypothetical reader (for a very honest appraisal of the effect on themselves would, such as saying the article is, in their opinion, very limited, would attract limited marks) to be explored. The question does not allow for an exploration of how these facets of the article work; simply require a stab at how they might be perceived by an imagined audience. When preparing classes of mixed abilities for such tasks, it is a continual battle to get the brightest students to limit themselves to the terms of the question; a desire to explore the intricacies of linguistics and graphology is lost and the teacher is forced to say, “it’s a simple question, so you must pretend to be as simple as the task.”

2.4 Next, the mark scheme. Notwithstanding the limitations inherent in the question, giving the mark scheme in advance sets the parameters of inquiry; demonstrating X in a response attracts top marks, therefore seek only that which would do so and look no further than this. Superficial observation, or rather less deep exploration of the text, is the natural outcome. In terms of stretching themselves and seeking ever deeper levels of meaning, the bright student’s terms of discovery have been curtailed, rather like an archaeologist uncovering a pharaoh’s tomb, but being told that the only significant artifact they found is a wooden spoon. Initially the archaeologist might be intrigued by the ornate gold and bejeweled bones but if success is only to be found in a spoon...and after a diet of years of such narrowly focused “discovery”, wouldn’t the explorer become blindfolded to the possibilities?

2.5 For a period of time leading up examinations, the types of questions likely to be encountered clearly need to be explored and prepared for, but what affect such an approach in the preceding months and years? To be able to learn about the subtleties and complexities of language takes years of immersion and organic exploration. Yes, a teacher themselves must know what lies beneath a text, its context, the history of its form and effect on the audience, but it is the student who must encounter and overcome the challenges. The teacher should hope that the pupils leave curious and on the lookout for further examples, rather than happy that a learning objective has been met and students’ learning of a particular feature of English ticked off from a list.

3. Targets to improve and the observation paradox

3.1 An enduring side effect of the observation cycle is the attempt to turn concepts and skills into explicitly taught and learned targets. At the end of a piece of, say, creative writing, it would be no surprise to see a rather bland comment praising the student’s effort, followed by a target for improvement, such as: When you redraft this, use prepositions, adverbs and present participles to open sentences to make them more exciting.

For the observer, there is clear evidence that the student knows how to improve and, assuming they do so, they rewrite said piece and act on the target, then they must have been learning, surely? Maybe, but then again, what exactly have they learnt in this process? To copy out most of what they had done before with a few tweaks that the teacher has insisted upon? Yes. But what else? What about the other methods that they did, or did not use? What about the effectiveness of their punctuation? Their lexical choices and use of analogy? Syntactical complexity? Intertextuality? Deployment of intriguing narration? Nothing mentioned, therefore it is implicitly correct. A target meant to improve, often has the effect of telling a student to do something very obvious to the detriment of the myriad techniques that a good writer could employ.

3.2 So, are targets useless? No, but they have a place that would, I suggest best be used in very tight exam practice units. They also give an observer something “positive” to observe and quantify and the teacher something easy to focus on when marking. But what would the alternative be? If time were not such a luxury, sitting with a particularly clever student and discussing what was good and bad, exploring how to improve and guiding them to successful writing and requiring them to read it and seek to learn from it, would be a powerful approach. Asking how their work differs from a superb example would encourage independence and expose them to excellence, thereby broadening their experience.

4. The discursive essay

4.1 Instead of giving students the aforementioned task (that will, I know, appear in all of AQA’s Unit 1 English/English Language examinations) how about: Headlines, subheadings and images are the first wave of a journalist’s lies. Discuss with reference to the article in front of you. For many students, such a task will never darken their door because it will never appear on an exam paper. But pause for a second and consider what the student must do to be even vaguely successful. Explore the function and effect of a headline etc, the use of language and graphology, reference to a text and exploration of alternative ideas. Far more intricate, whilst still touching on the central tenets of the likely exam question. Far more interesting, this approach also encourages independence and allows the teacher to also measure, however subjectively, the thought processes and expression of the student. Without a mark scheme and the limitations they impose, the pupil has a vast canvas on which to articulate their thoughts and discover their own academic voice.

5. Lectures v multiple fragments

5.1 There, in front of an interactive whiteboard, stands the teacher, confronted by a crowd into which must be poured a veritable ocean of knowledge, for without knowledge, what use is a skill designed to convey learning? So, the teacher embarks on some multi sensory tasks that require a riot of cutting and pasting, the colour coding of the sonnet’s evolution, a hot-seating that sees Petrach and Shakepseare discuss the different form of their sonnets and a frenetic plenary involving traffic lights and then it’s done...they’re gone and the sonnet’s history is now consigned to history’s dustbin. And in other classrooms, the same pantomime is repeated. Why? Why not get the classes together, sitting silently, making notes in whichever style best suits them? Give them the facts, make them try and learn them however they can, then test their retention. Oddly, some will do better than others. And in the multi sensory pantomime, with its attendant perspiration, resourcing and planning, some will do better than others. And the difference means what for the intelligent student?

5.2 In the first scenario, a huge amount of effort is expended to impart what is essentially, a chunk of history. The teacher focused on the activities. In the second approach, the teacher at least has the time to prepare by focusing on their own subject knowledge, something that is rarely given passing thought: is the educator sufficiently learned, or sufficiently motivated to learn what they don’t know in enough depth? Many teachers of very bright students will have an IQ significantly lower than those that they teach—all they have is the illusion of knowledge caused by its absence in their audience. Whether or not this is the case, the teacher needs to continually focus on developing their own subject knowledge, but when the teaching delivery du jour requires fast paced, multi-sensory learning episodes surrounded by a plethora of assessment, marking and superficial target setting, what time is there for subject knowledge? In fact, it would be interesting to ascertain the proportion of state school teachers whose subject knowledge has grown since they began to teach. It would be no surprise to find that a teacher’s degree marked the apex of their learning and teaching has lead to a slow diminuation ever since (though of course, their understanding of pedagogical indoctrination is reaching its apex after a few years in the classroom). Why is it a classroom? Ought not it be the teachroom, or learnroom?

6. Finland and reading

6.1 Stretch and challenge being a consequence of growing older: university is more of a stretch than A Levels; they in turn were more of a challenge than GCSE the early “dip” years ought not be a watered down soup of later challenges (that in themselves are limited by the very assessments that define them) but an intensive fury of knowledge acquisition, skill practice and that most neglected of all areas of English, wide ranging reading.

6.2 How is it, that the AfL culture has led teachers in state schools to be unable to find the time to read more than a book a year (if that!)? Exams play their part: extract “analysis” is king, with the wider conceptual power of whole texts limited, where it remains, to a hectic race against the clock. Controlled assessments do allow for some limited reading, though most centres will, because they can, do the bare minimum within the rubric to get the highest mark. Thus the requirement that at least fifteen poems constitute a collection, whilst only two need referring to in an assignment, means, yes, you guessed it, that two poems in the new fifteen! Of course Shakespeare is still there, but a good film version and a well chosen extract, serves to create the illusion that a whole play has been read.

But exams and controlled assessment (and coursework before that) are not the only culprits in reading’s demise. School leaders will mention budgets and students themselves might mention the boredom of the written word, but for teachers, it is the fear of an observer seeing a class simply reading, or being read to, without overt “teaching” of some skill or other and the attendant assessment, that really has killed reading. If it takes, say, twenty lessons solid to read a novel, so one month of a school year, can this be justified? Can they be learning anything? Won’t some simply day dream for a month? Or worse still, fidget and misbehave? The answer to all of these, is “yes”. But the cynical amongst you might well ask, what happens in English lessons anyway? And the optimist might point to those wider cultural conversations and understanding a child can access in later life through reading about the world within which they live. English being taught through fragments of text is not English at all.

7. VAKuous oppression of the silent thinker

7.1 Most students in most comprehensives will have at least one brush with a somewhat misapplied, bastardised version of a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) idea. It is often posited that we all apprehend the world in our unique way: some prefer to process things audibly, others visually and some in a more physical, active manner. The ubiquitous TLA (three letter acronym) VLK has crept from the pages of some credible research into schools. Hundreds of thousands of students have filled in simplistic questionnaires that have “determined” their learning style: visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic. Pupils often are able to say that they learn best though listening to music and audiobooks, where others prefer, and indeed demand, the more physical processes of cutting and pasting, or moving around the class room. Teachers, aware of the “science” behind said labels, strive to invent multi-sensory, VAK activities that meet the “needs” of their group, thereby personalising the learning experience for each student. All very noble, but the science upon which this process has been based has been somewhat twisted and hacked to meet the reality within which it has been applied to: adults do indeed have a preference for the manner in which they interpret the world, and more pertinently, receive and impart information. Some would listen to an audiobook over turning the pages of a novel whilst others doodle as they think and others find that exercise allows them to think. But these are adults and their preferred style has changed over the course of their life. Think for a moment what the VAK labels does to a child...I have a label, say visual, therefore I am a visual learner. Teacher, if I am not given visual stimuli or the chance to express myself through colour, drawing etc, my ability to achieve is being curtailed. Rather blinkered thinking. Children do indeed, just like adults, prefer to learn in certain ways, but they are there to learn how to learn as well. A wider diet of different activities will widen their ability to learn life, though it must be said, in the worlds of higher academic study and work, you generally have to adapt to the realities of that world, rather than demand it changes to suit your preferences.

7.2 On top of all the questions about VAK, another ought to be asked. In the NLP research, a fourth learning preference was clearly evident, that of the quiet thinker, sometimes labelled as being an audio-digital preference. Many of the most able students would fit into this category from their earliest years and retain its traits for life: quiet, deep thought that can be mistaken for day dreaming and a lack of engagement. The student who appears reluctant to answer a question as they postulate their response often gets cut off by a teacher unwilling to wait for the reply. The student feels their voice diminish and, over time, often sinks further into the shadows. The teacher, taking the line of least resistance, leaves them to it because their written answers, though often brief, are rarely wrong. So a cycle of silenced intelligence deepens and then bright, silent student coasts their way through a school system that is happy to make no demands of the undemanding child. Yet it is here, in the student that the VAK advocates refuse to acknowledge, teachers often ignore and schools send on their way without attention, that the deepest intelligence often resides. Once at university and the more didactic delivery and independent work, this same student flourishes, though they often are condemned to a university of a lesser academic stature than they might have entered had their needs been identified and met whilst at school. And what are these needs? Open ended, challenging tasks that demand enquiry and exploration of alternative interpretations. Not fragments of texts sandwiched between a barrage of assessments that prove only that assessment is happening.

8. Conclusion

8.1 Maybe the question is wrong. To what extent is the learning potential of very able students limited by the current crop of examinations, OfSTED and AfL, really ought be: education now dulls the brightest of minds. Discuss.

9. Recommendations

For what it’s worth, replace all exam boards with university led, centralised one.

Schedule examinations so that they marking, mostly done by teachers, is in the holidays.

Make all examiners achieve an A* in their respective subject—if they cannot do this, how can they assess this?

Get rid of on-screen marking for English examinations.

Introduce discursive essays into examinations that can be on any topic.

January 2012

Prepared 2nd July 2012