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.