Turning up the “Heat” on Dumbing Down.

In the Spectator, yesterday, this piece (http://www.spectator.co.uk/columnists/all/7637588/status-anxiety.thtml) by Toby Young gets grumpy about graphic novel adaptations of Dickens and then asks “So what are children studying instead of Dickens in most state schools?”.

The answer, he tells us, (as provided by Joseph Reynolds a “tireless campaigner against dumbing down”) is a ‘unit’ in which pupils are “expected to study” the ITV1 homepage and a 2009 cover of Heat magazine.

This ‘information’ Young uses as the basis for an assertion that Heat magazine is now an English set text instead of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.

The article prompted some aghast reactions on Twitter including one from teacher and writer of a teaching blog @oldandrewuk who commented: “Don’t you think this is the sort of thing that makes middle class parents abandon the local comprehenxsive?”

Now I’m not a reader, let alone a fan, of Heat magazine, but I am a middle-class parent with a child at the local comprehensive (and three more to follow) and I haven’t started loading the lifeboats yet.

Regular followers will know that earlier in the week I’d been dissatisfied with a homework task for my 11yo (Shakespeare-based rather than Heat-based) which didn’t seem to me to serve any useful purpose. I care about my children’s education and I’m comfortable about challenging what appears to be sloppiness in how they’re being taught. But my response to this catalyst for middle-class abandonment of comprehensives was: “I’m a middle class parent with an 11yo at the local comp. He’s studying Shakespeare sonnets and also reading Charlie Higson’s “The Fear”. If he looks at magazine text too I’ve got no problem with that as long as I can understand what the intended learning outcome is of a piece of work.”

To cut a long Twitter saga short, my instincts were that Young’s story was probably not entirely accurate and that the use of the scorned material was probably quite justifiable, but that I couldn’t really comment on it till I’d seen the relevant ‘unit’.

I’m not fond of knee-jerk attacks of the vapours based on headline-grabbing statements without the benefit of supporting evidence.

A Tweetmate, @LearningSpy (who blogs here: http://learningspy.co.uk/) kindly offered to provide me with the papers to evaluate. And while I was waiting for them to turn up, I took a little trip down memory lane (and indeed further back in time than my memory will allow) to have a look at some past papers.

When the Edexcel material did arrive, a couple of things became immediately clear. First (and I hope it doesn’t surprise you to discover this) “Heat” Magazine is not a ‘set text’. Shakespeare, Dickens, Salinger and Harper Lee are all presumably still safely on the list (even if one can get away – as I did – without reading any Dryden). 

Second, there is no ‘unit’ that requires the study of the ITV1 Homepage or Heat Magazine front cover, if by ‘study’ we mean a prolonged application of skill and effort to increase a person’s understanding of a particular subject. If you had visions of your middle-class child being subjected to week after week of Heat covers in place of the greats of the classical Western cannon in their English Literature classes, panic no more. 

What Joseph Reynolds and presumably also Toby Young and @oldandrewuk are all objecting to is a Controlled Assessment in the English Language GCSE; specifically the Theme Two element of Unit 1: English Today. Say what you like about the greatness of Dickens, using an extract of any of his novels in “English Today” is stretching the definition of ‘today‘ by over a hundred years.

There are two tasks in this assessment – a comprehension / commentary task and a composition task. These tasks look startlingly familiar even to an old fogey like me, because I remember very similar requirements from my own O’Level days. The requirement to read, understand, and comment on one or more pieces of contemporary text; the requirement to produce a piece of original text of my own within the time allowed and to the standards required.

Reading for enjoyment and critical analysis of the greats of English Literature happened in a different part of the curriculum – and still does.

For this particular controlled assessment (which is in any case, one of a choice of two) Edexcel provides six texts from which two must be chosen by the student for commentary. Three are digital texts, three from print media. Some are more ‘highbrow’ than others. They include, but are not limited to the texts Young mentions. The students need to be able to make comparisons between the texts they choose, support their ideas using detail from the texts and show how the original writers themselves use presentation and language to communicate their ideas. This is actually a more rigorous requirement than my own O’Level where the very leading questions and short-length answers had the effect of more strongly steering the student in a particular direction. (A more recent example of a similar style – on the subject of credit card theft – can be found here: http://www.freeexampapers.com/get_past_papers.php?l=Past_Papers%2FO+Level%2FE…

In the 2012/12 paper, this element of the assessment looks for a 1000 word answer. Handwritten that’s about three sides of A4. Of course, the quality of the content the student produces is what matters, not what you or I might think about the texts (or subject matter) used as the jumping off point for the exercise. So, although I can understand that someone could take the view that “Talent TV’ as a subject matter is not their cup-of-tea, that’s not a meaningful critique in terms of what this Controlled Assessment is looking at. 

The other half of the assessment is the Writing Task. This again requires the student to produce 1000 words, either writing an article for a TV magazine or writing the script for a podcast. The exercise requires students to show that they can write for a particular purpose and audience and are able to produce high quality, accurate text. This is not purposeless or dumb. These are relevant, valuable skills. You could carp at the subject matter, I suppose. But why? 

At this point I am glad of the time I had to rummage in past papers before looking at the 2011/12 one. 


As you can see, in 1906 there was no Heat magazine. Funny that. Instead the contemporary preoccupations of “The Olympic Games revived” and “Travel in the Arctic or Antarctic Regions” were options for the 40 minute exercise. (Although with Sydney Carton on the ‘character’ list, I can’t deny that Dickens at least gets a look in). 


Move forward to 1951 and the themes for a 90 minute essay include “The Fascination of Shop Windows” and what your locality is contributing to “The Festival of Britain”. I have no quarrel with these themes, but nor do I see them as innately superior, either morally or educatively, to “Talent TV”. They are just subjects. Things to think about. Things to write about. Jumping off points. Something to get you started. Like “Monday” is perhaps.

I undertook to look at the material before judging whether “dumbing down” was indeed occurring in the GCSE English syllabus. My own view is that this one Controlled Assessment does not provide evidence of that. I see recognisable requirements that would not have looked out of place in the exams I took and a level of rigour and expectation that I understand and welcome. You can like or loathe the subject matter for the assessment, but – on the evidence so far – middle-class children’s minds remain safe in our community schools, and we can carry over our conniptions for another day.

Could a different subject matter have been chosen that would please and interest Joseph Reynolds more than this one does? Probably. But is that really a test of ‘dumbing down’? I don’t think so.

What would be really dumb – in my opinion – would be to leap to condemn (or for that matter to defend) this assessment paper without having read it. Dumber still would be to use such uninformed condemnation as the basis for an attack on the English syllabus, or on comprehensive education more broadly.

Ah yes. Comprehensive education. Lets stop worrying for a moment about the middle classes in our comprehensives and remember what comprehensive is meant to mean: children of all backgrounds, classes and abilities learning together. One of the more entertaining tweets in the exchange about this single Controlled Assessment (which became strangely and unjustifiably aggrandised into a whole ‘unit’ of study) was the one saying: “..we can teach criticism using any text, but *should* we? Why not widen horizons?”

Why not indeed?

Let’s perhaps all accept that something that maybe wouldn’t top our list of ‘worthy’ subject matter could nevertheless be the starting point of some good learning. 




19 thoughts on “Turning up the “Heat” on Dumbing Down.

  1. "The students need to be able to make comparisons between the texts they choose, support their ideas using detail from the texts and show how the original writers themselves use presentation and language to communicate their ideas. This is actually a more rigorous requirement than my own O’Level where the very leading questions and short-length answers had the effect of more strongly steering the student in a particular direction. (A more recent example of a similar style can be found here: http://www.freeexampapers.com/get_past_papers.php?l=Past_Papers%2FO+Level%2FE…) "This is exactly what I was thinking when reading the papers earlier (through your tweets).You’ve expressed all this so clearly! Thank you! I thought I was losing my mind in this Twitter thread!

  2. Thanks for this. I think partly what is happening is that this exercise is examining transferable skills, which we didn’t have a great deal of back in the O Level days really. The emphasis is on process rather than actual content

  3. I should add that although I didn’t want to show extracts from the Controlled Assessment paper – which is still current until May 2012, the overall curriculum information is readily accessible. This is the link to the Eng Lang spec: http://www.edexcel.com/migrationdocuments/GCSE2010/Eng_Lang_spec.pdfAnd this to the Eng Lit: http://www.edexcel.com/migrationdocuments/GCSE2010/EngLit_final.pdfI was wrong about Salinger, though for my money the Steinbeck is a better choice anyway, but none of my other expectations are dashed.

  4. I agree with the majority of your post and don’t believe we should make students study old tests just for the sake of it.However, with this part:"If he looks at magazine text too I’ve got no problem with that as long as I can understand what the intended learning outcome is of a piece of work."Don’t you mean you have no problem with that as long as the teacher understands what the intention is. It is, after all, the teacher who is the expert on the matter.Sarah

  5. Thanks for commenting Sarah. But no, I did mean as long as I understand the learning outcome.I don’t mean by that that all teachers should be explaining every learning outcome of every aspect of every lesson to all parents in advance all the time. But I do mean that if I as an interested and engaged parent can’t understand the purpose of a piece of work my child is doing I should be able to feel comfortable asking the teacher to explain its purpose and the teacher should be able to explain it to me in a way that I’ll understand. That feels like a sensible, proportionate part of the home-school relationship. One way that parents support their children’s schooling is to respond to the inevitable complaints of "why do I have to do x,y or z….?" As a parent, I’m in a better position to respond positively and supportively if I can answer confidently "it’s because you’ll be able to….."One of the greatest ways value is added by expert in any field or capacity is by the sharing of their expertise. I’m modelling a lifelong commitment to learning for my children. That means that sometimes their teachers are teaching me too. 😊

  6. Unfortunately, you are either wrong or ignorant. Heat magazine cover is a set text. Britain’s Got Talent is a set text. Yes, there are six set texts and you choose two. Trust me, the others aren’t any good, either. This is 20% of the grade. It is called English/English Language Unit 1: English Today Theme Two: Talent Television. 5EH01/01The National Curriculum requires that texts be of ‘high quality’The real question we should be asking is this: why are we so far gone that we would defend this curriculum? It is just crap.

  7. I am neither wrong, nor ignorant. I make clear in the blog (had you troubled to read it) that the Heat cover forms part of a Controlled Assessment in the English language paper. That really doesn’t make it a ‘set text’ in the generally accepted meaning of those words. The set texts for this English Language syllabus are: Anita and Me by Meera Syal, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstree by Dai Sijie, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Rani and Sukh by Bali Rai, Heroes by Robert Cormier, Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis. In addition there’s the non-fiction text Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Before you have conniptions that there’s no Shakespeare or Dickens on that list, remember this is the English language curriculum. The English Literature syllabus requires a Shakespeare play to be studied, plus a contemporary drama. The prose fiction set texts are Pride and Prejudice (Austen), Great Expectations (Dickens), The Hound of the Baskervilles (Conan Doyle), Animal Farm (Orwell), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stephenson) , Felicia’s Journey (William Trevor). There’s a set poetry anthology too. None of the above suggests a lack of proper attention to the classics or a "dumbing down" of the curriculum. The role of the Heat Magazine cover and the other pieces of non-fiction prose that you mention in your comment and that I reference clearly in the blog, is the same as the piece of text in the "credit card theft" example in the O’Level paper that I link to. Straightforward, contemporary, non-fiction, functional text to serve as a basis for a comprehension exercise (as I explain) and the jumping off point for the students own written composition (as I also make clear). Toby Young’s assertion that Heat magazine is required reading instead of Dickens is preposterous and entirely unsupported by the Controlled Assessment paper that you reference and which I read before I blogged.You may disapprove of "Talent TV" as the subject matter for that Controlled Assessment (and if you do, there is – as the specification makes clear – an alternative paper on a different theme), but to me it appears to be no better or worse a subject than "Credit Card Theft". A proper understanding of the purpose of the paper, the syllabus it sits within and it’s partner Literature syllabus suggests this curriculum is not crap at all. I have no problem defending it. PS:(I would have a problem if any teacher chose to use that paper as a reason to study Heat covers for a term before the assessment. It’s very clear that it’s a paper that a student should be able to approach on the day with no prior knowledge of the texts used).

  8. What the hell do you call it then? My kid has to read it. It’s a reading exercise. Edexcel calls it a text. The school calls it a text. It is required. If it’s a text and you have to read it, then it is a ‘Set text’. IT’s 20% of the grade. The implication here is that it is ok to do some crap, as long as we read Of Mice and Men. And before you imply that all those other language texts are set texts, guess what? YOU ONLY HAVE TO READ ONE! If you had read the National Curriculum (which you are clearly ignorant of) you would know that the texts have to be of ‘high quality, among the best of their type’. There are explanatory notes on what ‘high quality’ means as well. I advise you read them. All texts come under the Range and Content programme. And Edexcel and the schools are supposed to abide. This is all I ever get: people who are ignorant, then throw out a reason, then I school them a little, then they throw out a different reason, then more facts come out, and they change their story again. Trust me, you are just like Edexcel. They haven’t been able to justify it either. I’m laughing!

  9. The Exam is 20% of the grade. What the exam is testing is skill in comprehension and composition. The marks are for the student’s output. If their comprehension and composition are sound, they will deserve their marks.I am not ignorant. I do understand the National Curriculum, I just disagree with you. Courteously. I have explained why and I have nothing new to add.

  10. Too bad your ‘explanation’ lacks any rigour. Trust me, I understand what you are saying. You just happen to be wrong. If you can ‘explain’ why Heat magazine cover and Britain’s Got Talent are texts ‘of high quality, among the best of their type’ then I might be interested. As it is, you just try to duck and weave like a spin doctor. You need not reply to anything. But if you do, please answer the question about how they are texts of high quality. Trust me, Edexcel would like a good ‘spin’ on this one, too.

  11. J reynolds, I hope you keep waiting… The author could not be clearer and more polite than she has been. And for the record, students do at least 2 literature set texts, plus Shakespeare, plus poetry. Wjec now have 3 texts plus Shakespeare plus poetry. I currently have to teach Romeo and Juliet, some poems linked by a theme, linked again to a theme from R and J so that they can all be compared together (a hell of a 3 part assignment), Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men and Blood Brothers, and prepare students for the unseen poetry in the exam (comparative essay). That’s just the Lit.

  12. Once again, the question is, ‘Is Heat magazine a text of high quality.’ Once again, all you moral cowards, however polite you are, refuse to answer. So, yes, still waiting for an answer. You are like a bunch of Edexcel spokespeople, rationalising. The facts keep getting in the way of you finding a loophole. I don’t care about all your puffing of the subject (we do this, we do that). First, it’s not relevant. I’m talking about talent television assessment. Second, your core is so lame anyway (two texts? in two years? What is this year 2?) Your list is something we did and still do in Massachusetts in one month, not two years. It’s pathetic. You should be embarrassed and ashamed. Once again, is Heat magazine a text of ‘high quality’.

  13. Is Heat magazine a ‘text of high quality?’ Anyone?(sound of crickets)Anyone?Still waiting. No one has answered. Except to give the answer to some other question.

  14. People like this man get offensive and rude because they are wrong and they know they are (or have nothing else to do – go out and teach if you’re that bothered!) Comments become offensive and personal and we know that’s when people begin to lose credibility. The reason people don’t answer is because no-one is interested in what is poor journalism (the Telegraph article on the same topic failed to mention that one of their articles was a piece of text studied on last year’s coursework).I think the other comments presented are interesting reading and provide a accurate summary of what I understand from my daughter’s GCSE. ‘Heat’ is not a set text – it is one of twelve PIECES of text THE SCHOOL chooses as part of what used to be called coursework. Incidentally, the other text she is looking at is an article from the Scotsman which is really well written and has wide ranging language features in it. It makes my GCSE coursework from 1988 look simple! Perhaps the people with negative views should actually have a go at the task and see how well they do?

  15. In answer to your question ‘j reynolds’ – yes.’Heat’ targets its audience and meets its purpose extremely well. It does what it needs to do to sell magazines, in the same way newspapers (now) do. The language is used to do just that. A high quality text meets the needs of its target audience and fits its purpose.

  16. Wrong. You haven’t read the National Curriculum. That isn’t the definition of high quality in the National Curriculum. Maybe you should look it up. You are just like so many who have gone before you. You make things up as you go along. Then another fact pops up. And you rationalise and make up something else. Trust me, Bridg, I am about five more facts ahead of you. If you want to look foolish five more times, go ahead. But it is a trap. If I were you, I would just stop. Here’s the definition:of high quality, among the best of their type, that will encourage pupilsto appreciate their characteristics and how, in some cases, they have influenced culture and thinkingThe real question is this: why would you bother? Why would you lay down all your cards (and lose) for Heat magazine? It’s not a bad question. PS Your ‘offensive and rude’ parlay is really just a dodge because you can’t answer the question. But you should call Edexcel up with your answers. By the way, that’s not the one they gave, but they are desperately looking for one. Maybe you solved the case!

  17. ‘Heat’ is not a set text – it is one of twelve PIECES of text THE SCHOOL chooses as part of what used to be called coursework. Incidentally, the other text she is looking at is an article from the Scotsman.What is this ‘Russian roulette’. We are now obligated as parents to ‘pick’ the right text? Out of the six texts? The one that is actually high quality? Well, first, I don’t get to pick; my daughter doesn’t get to pick. And none of the texts meet the criteria of high quality. Oh, and no, my daughter doesn’t have the scotsman article, she has Heat magazine and Britain’s Got Talent. They are texts. They are to be read. They are required.

  18. ‘Heat’ targets its audience and meets its purpose extremely well. It does what it needs to do to sell magazines. Loo paper targets its audience and meets its purpose extremely well. It does what it needs to do to sell loo paper. Shall we include loo paper in the syllabus? Quick, call Edexcel. They are looking for a ‘new’ course assessment. You’ve got just the one! Loo paper!

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