Standards are slipping, but the real problem is literacy

The Government has anatomised the body educational and cut it up into its separate limbs
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The Independent Culture
AS MY 16-year-old son left the examination hall after sitting the Biology paper of his Science GCSE this year, he bumped into his teacher. "Well," said the Science master. "I don't know why we bothered teaching you lot any Biology. You needed precious little of it to pass that paper."

When I, a teacher in a provincial comprehensive, found myself invigilating a History GCSE during the same season, I whiled away the time by having a crack at the questions myself. It was "not my period" (as my own one- time history master used to say in response to almost any question we ever asked him), but it only took me 10 minutes - not the allotted hour- and-a-half - and I got most of the questions right. How do I know? Because the answers were provided in the paper itself.

The History examinees were not being tested on their ability to recall facts, analyse them and express themselves in (perish the thought!) essays, but to demonstrate, briefly, their ability to extract information from source materials. Thus, I spent 10 minutes in what was little more than a glorified "word-search" through a small number of very short extracts from history books and newspaper articles about the discovery of penicillin. I was interested to learn that some historians, at least, think that Alexander Fleming got too much of the credit. History is not as black-and-white as you might think.

No wonder, then, that this year the percentage of those gaining top GCSE grades - those equivalent to passes at the old O-level - should be higher than ever before. The exams must be easier: standards must have dropped. But it really isn't as simple as that. Education is not as black and white as you might think, either.

It is not enough to say that public examinations are easier than they once were - they are different. Take English Literature - a subject I now teach. When I took my own O-level, nearly 30 years ago, I had to study two of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (with Prologues), and a Shakespeare play. I had to be prepared to answer context questions from any part of them. That meant that I had to study the Chaucer word-by-word, learning a great deal of Middle English vocabulary and medieval social and religious history along the way, so that I could explain any allusion or historical reference that might turn up in the exam.

The Shakespeare was not quite so difficult, but much of the figurative language needed to be worked out, in case I was called upon to explain it. There was a modern novel to be studied too, but you could get your O-level knowing only four set texts, and only three authors. The course was intense, but it was narrow; the course was academic.

The young people to whom I now teach English Literature, at what is now called GCSE level, don't have to study Chaucer at all, and they don't have to study anything with the scholarly application expected of my generation. But they do have to study more widely - many more authors, taken from a broader range of traditions.

My students have to do their Shakespeare play, yes; but they have to do a 20th-century play, too. They don't study Chaucer, but they do have to write a comparison between a 19th-century and a 20th-century novel. Moreover, they have to be prepared to answer questions on one poet in particular, and a selection of poems from different centuries, and a selection of poems from other literary cultures and traditions. And not everything is judged by examination: many of their efforts are presented as course work. The course is broad; the course is comprehensive.

So, whatever else might be said every summer about rising grades and falling standards, it is clear that, in the long term at least and in many subjects, like is not being compared with like. And yet, we all know that despite (if not because of) those annually improving exam statistics, standards are slipping, and things are getting worse.

One area we are certainly right to worry about is literacy, the medium through which we used to expect learning to be expressed. Universities and teacher training colleges now complain that many of their well-qualified students arrive with pitiful weaknesses in spelling, grammar and punctuation.

And yet, exams other than English are required to take these skills into account. But the marks to be won or lost are few - a tiny percentage that will hardly affect the final result. Marginalise literacy like this, and you can give top grades to historians who can't write essays, geographers who can't spell any place-names, and linguists who use the ubiquitous greengrocer's apostrophe with abandon.

Literacy is more than just spelling, grammar and punctuation. The truly literate read for pleasure. When my classmates and I were being tested on The Pardoner's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale, Macbeth, and Brighton Rock, it was a fair assumption that we would be reading other literature through our own free choice. We enjoyed both depth and breadth. My own students might have to read more than we did, but few of them read anything else.

As contemporary "education" only values what is measurable, what they don't read is irrelevant: it has no statistical import. It's what is on the syllabus that counts - and what is on the syllabus is more or less dictated by the National Curriculum, which is written by the Government.

The Department for Education (and, let us not forget, Employment) would no doubt defend itself against these criticisms by saying that a significant part of that National Curriculum is a response to the literary philistinism of the age, and an attempt to put things right through law. They would claim to have abstracted and promoted literacy, just as they have abstracted and promoted the constituent skills appropriate to History, say, or Science. But when students can pass exams by exercising these skills with little knowledge (as in the case of my son's Biology paper, or that History paper I invigilated), and with poor literacy, we know that standards have indeed slipped, and that all those reams of statistics mean nothing of any real, lasting value.

It is as if the Government has anatomised the body educational, cutting it up into its separate limbs and organs so that each can be labelled, weighed, and - above all - measured. The trouble is that, if you do that to a body, you kill it. Even someone with one of today's Biology GCSEs could tell you that.

The author is a teacher at a comprehensive school in East Anglia