Education: An exam revolt of Ampleforth proportions

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The Independent Online
If the Government is so committed to raising standards in education, why are respected independent schools setting up alternative examination procedures? Elaine Williams looks at the cracks that have appeared in the GCSE and why some teachers fear our children are being taught to learn `debased, dull' courses with a `tick-list mentality'.

It doesn't help a government that has set out its stall on raising school standards when banner headlines trumpet the news that a school has dropped a GCSE which it deems inadequate, in favour of its own exam.

Recent stories about Ampleforth College, the Roman Catholic public school, replacing GCSE English Literature with its own certificate, have ruffled feathers in some quarters and created some interest and excitement in others.

Within days of the newspaper articles the school was contacted by the office of Professor Michael Barber, special adviser to David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, seeking a meeting.

Father Leo Chamberlain, Ampleforth's headmaster, is clear about the stand his school has taken: "We were very concerned about the narrowness of the [GCSE] syllabus and as the Government is trying to raise standards I think they are interested in the approach we have taken and the kind of work that can be done."

The school is optimistic that it will gain university accreditation for its Ampleforth Certificate of Literature, and other independent schools, encouraged by its action, are considering opting into the scheme. Andrew Carter, Ampleforth's head of English, has also received letters from parents in other parts of the country, complaining about the poor quality of literature studied at GCSE by their children.

Ian Small, the headmaster of Bootham School, York, who also carries the English brief on the academic policy committee of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, the body which represents major public schools, believes teachers are worried about the narrow range of set texts on offer and the prescriptive nature of the syllabus. He says: "It obliges teachers to be much more aware of what candidates will need in the exam rather than teaching texts to the right kind of depth. For example, the nature of the requirement to place texts in an historical context means it becomes as important to say when Macbeth was written and something about the nature of kingship in 1603 as it does to get to grips with the play. It's a tick-list mentality.

"The Ampleforth Certificate extends pupils' reading and deepens their knowledge of literature. We will be looking at it very closely."

Neil King, head of English at Hymers College, an independent co-educational school situated in Hull, is seeking to form a consortium with other schools to opt into the Ampleforth scheme. He says: "I think GCSE literature has become so debased, a very dull and lugubrious affair for kids that have any spark. Ampleforth is putting up something different, giving their pupils a chance to work with some of the best in literature. We want to support that."

William Duggan, the headmaster of Batley Grammar in West Yorkshire, says that he will also consider the new scheme if it proves to work well. Andrew Carter, Ampleforth's head of English, says the GCSE has reached a stage where Dickens' Great Expectations is the only substantial text on the syllabus - a book he would have preferred in any case to teach for A-level - and that there is only one Shakespeare, usually Macbeth.

The department has reintroduced Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and branched out from Animal Farm, Kes and Lord of the Flies, giving pupils the opportunity "to get stuck into some serious writers such as Fielding, Swift, Pope" and modern works such as Anthony Burgess's translation of Cyrano de Bergerac. It also looks at Shakespeare texts such as Othello and The Taming of the Shrew. Mr Carter also feels that GCSE is "copping out on the teaching of poetry" and has introduced in-depth study of poets such as Coleridge and Dylan Thomas. Nor has the department reserved its in-house syllabus for bright pupils only. It believes all pupils should have access to the broader range.

Mr Carter says: "We wanted to read texts for the integrity of the text itself. We felt GCSE was becoming something of a cynical exercise, not too easy but too restrictive." The school has also increased marks for coursework to 75 per cent of the whole course, the other 25 per cent awarded for a two-and-a-half-hour unseen exam. This move will be supported by many English teachers who regretted the loss of innovation caused by the Government's reduction of coursework to 30 per cent of the GCSE syllabus.

The Qualifications Curriculum Authority is keen to point out that Ampleforth could have worked more imaginatively within GCSE and that there is ample opportunity to stretch bright pupils. Some heads of English concur. Stephen Barker, head of English at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, says: "It is perfectly possible to devise a rigorous and demanding course from the texts on offer," though he regretted the "fatuous nature" of GCSE exam questions.

However, Ampleforth is not the first to go it alone. St Paul's Girls School in London has jettisoned GCSE in favour of its own courses and examinations in Art and Music though an initiative to drop all GCSEs apart from a "core" a few years ago, in order to create greater flexibility at 16, was quashed due to parental anxiety and fears about university admissions difficulties.

Winchester College, on the other hand, does not examine at all in English Literature and History, though "we teach lots of literature and lots of history" according to James Sabben-Clare, the headmaster. He says the school does not believe there is any educational virtue in putting pupils through lots of exams at 16. He says: "The ethos of this school is to educate for the sake of education not for the sake of exams. We go to considerable trouble to explain to parents why we don't examine in these subjects and most accept it."

Ampleforth too has had little opposition from parents who seem happy with in-house arrangements. And so far there has been no difficulty with university admissions officers. An officer from University College London says that the university expects English literature applicants to be as widely read as possible and to go above and beyond what is required at GCSE, so that a literary background would be regarded favourably.

These developments come at a time when the independent sector has shown itself increasingly frustrated by the constraints of GCSE. At its annual conference only last month, HMC called for the abolition of GCSEs as an inadequate preparation for A-levels and beyond. Although many schools cater for pupils moving between the state and independent sectors and so are reluctant to buck national examinations, they remain unhappy with what they have to prepare pupils for. Dr Martin Stephen, the high master of Manchester Grammar School, says: "Fifty per cent of what we teach at GCSE has nothing to do with GCSE. We give lots of add-on extras."

Of all GCSEs, however, he regrets "the lack of rigour" in English Literature: "Texts have been selected that adults assume children will find stimulating. There are some very flaccid ones on offer."