“Rubbish!” says a senior DfE source. “Extremely patronising!” continues said source. “End of civilisation as I know it!” roars Sir Herbert Gussett. “Low brow!” sighs Sir Hubert Highbrow. “We’ll squash it!” drones Ofqual. In their day they did proper English, the canon – great Dead White Men. Well, Samuel Pepys is a proposed text. “Filth!” Whatever next? The Beano? Viz? Surely they’re not as “good” as Pope’s Dunciad or Swift’s Modest Proposal?
That is entirely to miss the point. The proposed exam is not about the literary worth of a text, but how the English language behaves in it. It’s Linguistics, stupid. It deals in things like phonetics, syntax, etymology, morphology, register, semiotics, semantics, structuralism, genre, gender and power relations, class, subtext, context, codes, audience, dialect and much more. It can get a bit political and prompt dodgy left wing tendencies. And we don’t want that kind of thing.
It’s not even new. The AQA A level Language did all this. Our prescribed topic one year was education – our texts were from medieval clerics, pedant monks, Plato, Socrates, Arnold, Dickens, Hoggart, Brontë, Bunter, Bunty, the Bash Street Kids, Ofsted reports and, of course, Nigel Molesworth, whose deathless prose was our most challenging text.
This proposed OCR exam sounds like a continuation of this, like serious, intellectual fun. Students will surely enjoy analysing the above modern texts – the collision of registers between Mr Paxman and Mr Rascal or the florid Mr Brand and the braying honourable fellows or the rhetorical sleights of twittering 140 characters – or how cheap shot columnists construct their cute personae.
Moreover, the exam is a happy mix of modern and traditional – William Blake, Emily Dickinson with Jez Butterworth’s magnificent play Jerusalem and Marjane Satrapi’s thrilling graphic novel Persepolis. Just add some Shakespeare, the most mash up killer linguist of them all, and you’ve got the perfect exam. Tough, difficult, creative, thrilling and much more “rigorous” than most of that lit crit tick box stuff.
Teachers already love it. They can’t wait to do it. They shouldn’t get their hopes up too high. Ofsquash will kill it.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.