The tail is wagging the dog rather vigorously at the moment. Or should I say that once again the shape of the school curriculum is continuing to be determined by public examinations? What will it take to allow schools to provide an appropriate education for their pupils that involves just taking some examinations on the way?
Unfortunately, thanks to our modern league table regime and a fear of allowing teachers to be professionals, once a new examination regime is announced, schools tend to focus only on that, as they are only too aware that not meeting national targets could lead to closure.
There has been a huge furore recently about the alleged banning of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as a component of the new English literature GCSE. My first experience of teaching this was in 1977 as a CSE text to a bottom set in a rural comprehensive school. The pupils’ literacy was fairly limited and I had to read the text aloud. Yet, inspecting an international school abroad recently, that same text was being taught to a group of students with English as a second language and they were gaining much from the discussions of the characters and their motivations.
My question is – does the fact that Of Mice and Men is no longer a GCSE set text mean that it will no longer be read in schools? Are we saying that pupils only ever read during their school careers the texts which are set for GCSE?
I am fortunate to be working in the independent sector, we are untrammelled by government diktats in some respects. Our English teachers work really hard to find innovative ways of encouraging pupils throughout the school to read widely. Keeping a reading log in an innovative format in years 8 and 9 has become an exercise in creativity. For example, one pupil who read a novel about fashion design and dress-making decided to design and make 1960s outfits and take photographs of her friends modelling them, which became her reading log.
Pupils can be encouraged to think about books in different ways – designing a quiz or a computer game or rewriting an excerpt in the form of a graphic novel.
We, as teachers, need the courage to liberate ourselves from the imposed belief that broader education and enjoyment of learning and discovery has to be sacrificed on the altar of the examination syllabuses.
It appears that a move is now afoot to remove some of the practical subjects and creative arts from the straitjacket of the national GCSE syllabus altogether. I can appreciate that teachers of these subjects may feel that their worth is being undermined, but perhaps we should be bolder and rejoice in this potential liberation? Would it not be wonderful if headteachers and governing bodies decided that these subjects were of huge intrinsic worth in their own right and that to teach them to high-quality without a prescribed and regulated syllabus was still extremely worthwhile?
The school leaving age is no longer 16. However, we seem to be returning to the principles of the old school leaving certificate. The government is keen to ensure that all pupils reach a certain standard in English, mathematics, science, a modern foreign language and a humanity. So – a radical thought – why not restrict the new GCSE to these subjects and allow pupils to take a maximum of eight (allowing for English language and literature and three separate sciences)?
After that, pupils would be educated to an appropriate level in any other subjects they (or their parents or school) wished. A record of their achievement could be made and if they wanted to pursue those subjects to a higher level, advanced level syllabuses would be available leading on to further or higher education.
This should allow schools to offer a broader education, while covering the basics. Well, perhaps not, fear of league tables might still loom large – but then maybe Ofsted could take a leaf out of the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s criteria and judge a school on its broader educational provision and the wider opportunities it provides for its pupils, looking in depth at pupils’ whole educational experience, not just the bald outcomes? A wonderful dream!
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.