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 This is superseded by something close to eager anticipation: ‘You mean, we’re going to read a book by a black writer?’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’.)
The British Lady Chatterley trial was not ‘in the 1950s’, and I doubt if many playwrights of the Sixties (or since) would agree that ‘the winning of that case by the publishers marked an effective end to censorship of the arts in Great Britain.’ Perhaps because of careless proofreading, the section on scansion would be confusing to anyone not already familiar with the subject: ‘dari/ng’? ‘close bos om/ friend of the/ matur/ ing son’? (But maybe not a particularly close ally of the ever-youthful daughter?) And I am not at all sure what to make of a model paraphrase of ‘To be or not to be’ which renders ‘To die, to sleep – /No more’ as ‘To die, like a long sleep, to be no more’.
Such points are, of course, cavils: it is the position adopted by the writer of any ‘authoritative’ guide that makes irresistible the temptation to play the game. More serious, I think, are the omissions. The opening chapter comprises a shopping-list of the syllabuses offered by all the examining boards in Britain. Dr Stephen mentions the fact that it is possible to substitute a folder of course-work for one paper, under the decrees of one board, and that another has something called ‘Plain Texts’, but without a fuller explanation of what such dispensations might mean, and what their advantages might be, these snippets of information can be of little use to the candidate. And nowhere is there the vaguest hint that some boards also allow the study of texts outside the canon which is outlined in the remainder of the book. It is quite possible that the author does not consider these choices to be significant: I shall return to this point.
That such adjustments to the A-level system as have happened over the past decade or so are of no interest to Dr Stephen, that he is happy with the traditional forms of assessment, with ‘traditional’ (that is, a watered-down empiricist/New Critical) literary criticism, is confirmed by his procedure in the rest of the Guide. The model answers he provides are couched in the form of belletristic advocacy: there is no room here for genuinely personal perspectives, nor for the insights of other theoretical approaches. Thus the analysis of Fielding’s description of Bridget Allworthy is expansive on the matter of irony, and silent on questions of gender and stereotyping, questions which seem to me to be equally pertinent. Yet the author cannot be entirely ignorant of such perspectives, since he acknowledges that The Taming of the Shrew can ‘be difficult for a modern audience because its story ... can seem to go against modern ideas of the equality of men and women’.
If sexism has appeared on Dr Stephen’s intellectual horizon, racism, it would seem, has not. Apropos of Conrad, he mentions ‘the violence of Nature known to every seafarer (and, one might add, the violence of the relatively primitive societies to which he was exposed as a sailor)’. Perhaps it is as well that Dr Stephen teaches at Sedbergh, not in Bradford.
What I have said about the Longman Exam Guide to English Literature so far amounts only to a suggestion that it might have granted recognition to the diversity of the processes which go under the name of Eng. Lit. A level. But my disquiet goes deeper than this. There is a problem with the notion of the exam guide – and this problem is intensified by the large claims which the publishers make on behalf of their series. A self-confessed revision crammer might be undesirable, but it would be relatively harmless – a book in whose company candidates could while away the final weeks before the exam itself. But ‘course companions and study guides’ are in danger of doing much more than this: they abrogate the rights and duties of students and teachers alike, and leave precious little room in which the texts themselves can operate.
My first anecdote may serve as a metaphor for this. The exam guide threatens to have the same effect as did the authoritarian, controlling ethos of my grammar school, where, despite the teacher’s well-intentioned efforts to inspire us with a dramatic reading of Dickens, the fictive context of Magwitch’s reprimand to Pip was lost in the shadow of the power relations of the classroom. In effect, the exam guide mirrors (perpetuates? exacerbates?) the problems inherent in what a traditional exam/exam course does to the literature which is the object of study. Interposing itself between the student and the text, it robs the reader of an active, participatory role. The exam becomes the reality, the exam guide its only true mediator. Exam guides may be better or worse, depending on the degree to which they are tolerant of a diversity of approaches and tentative in their pronouncements – just as exam papers may offer more or less latitude to the candidates. But the basic problem remains: when teacher and student have little choice as to the text studied and practically none as to the question on which the candidates must write, they are disenfranchised from the educational process. There is nothing particularly new or radical in this observation. Nearly sixty years ago, on the introduction of the precursor of A level, the English Association argued that ‘since the style of question set determines the method of teaching, examining bodies usurp functions which properly belong to the school.’
At this point, the reader of this diary, stifling a yawn, may be thinking something along these lines: ‘Yes, we all know that exams are absurd – cramming the fruits of n years’ work into x three-hour papers, but basically it’s the only workable system of assessment so far devised.’ I should like in answer to take a brief look at the exam which is finding its way into the headlines with monotonous regularity: GCSE.
When people talk about standards, two questions tend to remain unanswered. Whose standards are being applied in the assessment of whom? Are these standards either appropriate or adequate? The first thing to be said about the new exam is that it is designed to cater for the whole school population at 16-plus. In this it diverges radically from the exams which it will supersede: O levels were intended for the top 20 per cent of the ability range, CSEs for the next 40 per cent. Whatever faults Sir Keith Joseph had, it must be conceded that he is the only Secretary of State at the DES to have said, and kept on saying, that the exam-oriented school curriculum has grossly neglected the 40 per cent of schoolchildren who are written off as ‘of low ability’. This change clearly makes the curriculum conform more closely to the ideal of comprehensive education; given that there is no likelihood of a diminution in the importance attached to certificates, it would seem to be the best solution available. The new system will also mark the end of the perennial dilemma for teachers, students and parents: ‘Should Jane/Jamal be entered for O level or for CSE?’
A second feature of GCSE is the emphasis placed on positive achievement. The jargon for this is ‘differentiation’: what it means is that candidates will be assessed according to what they ‘know, understand and can do’. If this seems rather less than revolutionary, it should be remembered that the present system discriminates between students largely on the basis of their capacity to accomplish the tasks set for them. It does not, I think, take an educational psychologist to point out the damage which the experience of failure can do to present self-esteem or future performance. Of course, how much difference the shift in emphasis will make in practice remains to be seen: this depends largely on the extent and efficacy of teacher training and retraining.
Thirdly, there is in the General Criteria for GCSE Examinations (published last year) strong endorsement of the principle of school-based assessment of course-work. In the recognition that ‘the teacher is likely to be in the best position to judge the merits of his or her own candidates,’ the document travels along a path which has no need of exam guides. Assessment through coursework, rather than through a final examination, offers two distinct advantages. It means that work can be negotiated between student and teacher: both become involved in choices about texts and about the form that any written response might take. And it fosters an attitude to writing, a recognition of the communicative process involved (introducing concepts such as redrafting and the awareness of audience), which are extraneous to the narrow and highly artificial context of an exam essay. Incidentally, the use of school-based assessment in GCSE English permits another advance from O level: namely, the introduction of a compulsory oral component – the new exam acknowledges that language competence is about oracy as well as literacy.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the GCSE General Criteria includes the following: ‘Every possible effort must be made to ensure that syllabuses and examinations are free of political, ethnic, gender and other forms of bias ... In devising syllabuses and setting question papers Examining Groups should bear in mind the linguistic and cultural diversity of society. The value to all candidates of incorporating material which reflects this diversity should be recognised.’ There are clearly quite radical implications in this for any GCSE English Literature syllabus-implications which make Dr Stephen’s whistle-stop tour from Chaucer to Arthur Miller look somewhat outmoded. And, in view of the fact that these criteria bear Sir Keith’s seal of approval, one should perhaps be wary of accepting too readily the ‘left-wing’ label which has been attached to the ILEA’S policies on race, gender and class. As the GCSE document notes, a multicultural/anti-sexist curriculum is important for all students. I am sure that my peers and I on Merseyside 15 years ago would not have greeted Young Warriors with the enthusiasm shown by my Bangladeshi boys: the ethnic identity of the author would not have carried the same message for us. But we, like the white boys I teach, might have been challenged by V.S. Reid’s novel to reexamine our perceptions of language and culture and of ‘relatively primitive societies’.
When GCSE does arrive, it will not mark a complete break with past practice. In many respects it owes its origins to the local, piecemeal, ad hoc innovations which groups of teachers have pressed on reluctant examining boards over the past two decades. It should be noted, moreover, that the teachers involved in this struggle have tended to work in inner-city schools – the very schools where staff, so we are told, are willing to damage their students’ education at the drop of a ballot-paper. Why, then, has there been so much opposition to the implementation of GCSE in 1986?
There are two reasons. The first is that teachers need time to plan suitable curricula and to be trained in the new assessment procedures. It is one thing to have been involved in small-scale, local curriculum initiatives, and quite another to embark, without adequate preparation, on a new national system. We need time to discuss within departments and to liaise with other schools, time to work out what implications the syllabus will have for our day-to-day practice. GCSE is too important to be botched, and a couple of days’ in-service training is patently inadequate.
The other reason is funding. Both the main teachers’ unions, and the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, have estimated that £100 million is needed for extra resources. Sir Keith promised £20 million. Since his departure there have been hints at an increase on this figure, but it remains to be seen whether this will amount to a realistic level of funding. If not, it is hard to see what worthwhile innovations could actually take place. By no means all schools are already plentifully equipped with materials which can be used across the ability range, let alone materials which ‘reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of society’. And it’s important to set this in context: the recently-published findings of the HMIs painted a gloomy picture of a widespread lack of resources, but even figures released earlier this year by the Educational Publishers’ Council indicate a fall in real terms of over five million pounds in maintained-sector spending on school books between 1983-84 and 1984-85. In this respect at least, Messrs Wall and Weigall are justified in talking of a decline in standards.
[*] Longman, 246 pp., £5.95, 14 April, 0 582 29699 4.