A classroom in a Merseyside school, 15 years ago; a warm autumn afternoon; 30 12-year-old boys in an English lesson, taken by a distant, severe, stooping man with, it is rumoured, a wooden leg. He is reading Great Expectations. Gradually the class loses its trepidation: drowsing in the sun-filled room, we allow our thoughts to wander from the text. And then the whole form shocked out of its somnolence by an explosion of rage: ‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!’ Shock gives way to guilt and fear: which one of us is the victim of this outburst?
Another classroom, this time in East London, last autumn. Another warm, sunny day, another class of 30 12-year-old boys. Another English lesson: not Great Expectations this time, but Young Warriors by V.S. Reid. It is the first time the boys have seen the book, and there is a murmur of interest as the texts are handed out. ‘Who’s this geezer on the back?’ somebody asks. I explain that it’s a photo of the author. The information, verified by me a few more times, is passed around. At first the news is greeted with incomprehension or disbelief. This is superseded by something close to eager anticipation: ‘You mean, we’re going to read a book by a black writer?’
Something more needs to be said about the context of these anecdotes. The first was enacted in a traditional suburban grammar school; my classmates and I were in an ‘express’ stream, destined to take O levels a year early. The second happened in an ILEA comprehensive; the class is a mixed-ability group, and all but a handful of the boys were born in Bangladesh.
The juxtaposition of these two experiences says something about my own career, but it also seems to gesture at a cluster of issues which, to judge from the extent of media coverage, appear to be of burning public concern. There is continuing anxiety about the health and future of ‘state’ education, about standards, about the rapidly decreasing supply of specialist teachers in certain areas of the curriculum, about the implementation of GCSE, and about the disruption caused by industrial action. For Londoners, 8 May marked the opportunity to participate in the direct election of a local education authority: the result, an overwhelming endorsement of existing ILEA policies, should provide Kenneth Baker with plenty to think about. And for thousands of students there is, as always at this time of year, the pressure of public examinations.
This tangled web of issues can be looked at through the prism of literature teaching. Since assessment is the most prominent common thread, the web may best be unravelled by starting with A levels. Teachers view this part of the school timetable in a variety of ways – as the yeast which leavens the dough of the lower school, as the tail that wags the dog of the whole curriculum, or even as the grimace on the face of the extinct Cheshire cat of teacher-centred pedagogy. No such contradictions assail the editors of the Longman Exam Guides, who preface Martin Stephen’s English Literature[*] with the observation that ‘much has been said in recent years about declining standards and disappointing exam results. While this may be somewhat exaggerated, examiners are well aware that the performance of many candidates falls well short of their potential.’ ‘Somewhat exaggerated’? I would be fascinated to learn of any serious research which might substantiate Messrs Wall and Weigall’s insinuations. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate has suggested that most 16-year-olds should be able to read ‘advertising material critically so as to distinguish between unbiased information and attempts to manipulate the reader’: perhaps this Exam Guide might be a suitable text for my students to practise on. (They might also like to consider the possibility that, given the publication date of this volume, there may be something disingenuous about the statement, on the back cover, that the Exam Guides ‘should be seen as course companions ... to be used throughout the year, rather than as last-minute revision crammers’.)
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[*] Longman, 246 pp., £5.95, 14 April, 0 582 29699 4.