Education: To be, or not to be creative?: Shakespeare by rote, grammar by the book. English teachers rightly fear a return to the bad old days, says Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
Leonard Rowe, an English teacher for more than 30 years, is taking early retirement this summer. Mr Rowe is leaving as head of English at Durham Johnston comprehensive in Durham, not because he has ceased to enjoy his subject or his pupils, but because he believes the great advances made in English teaching during his years in the classroom are about to be destroyed. At the heart of his discontent is the Government's decision to reduce drastically the amount of coursework in examinations and to place more emphasis on traditional end-of-course exams.

'I was educated in a grammar school in the Fifties,' says Mr Rowe. 'What happened in the English classroom was a mockery. We were loaded with rote- learning and pre-planned essays. We were never invited to discuss anything.

'The traditional O-level was easy. With coursework, standards have risen sharply. Pupils are reading an astonishing variety of books instead of studying the same set texts year after year. They are writing in a mass of styles. They are more self reliant and work five times harder.'

English teachers remain passionately opposed to the Government's curriculum and testing reforms. It was they who inspired last summer's test boycott when they protested that short pencil-and-paper tests were the wrong way to assess 14- year-olds. But it is they who are least satisfied with the outcome. While their colleagues applaud Sir Ron Dearing's efforts to trim the curriculum and testing, English teachers argue that few of their criticisms have been addressed.

The English tests at 14 have been modified with multiple-choices and one-word answers excluded. But a revised English curriculum, which many teachers feel concentrates too much on grammar and spelling and too little on communication and creativity, is still in place. The reduction of coursework in GCSE from 100 per cent to 40 per cent, and in A-level from 50 per cent to 20 per cent is going ahead.

Like Mr Rowe, English teachers fear a transformation of their subject, a return to the Fifties when clauses were analysed and Shakespeare chanted by rote. From primary to university, English teaching has always been a source of controversy. What is the right balance between free expression and accurate use of language? Should pupils be free to choose Frederick Forsyth as a GCSE text and should they be compelled to study John Milton?

For the past 20 years, at least, English teachers have emphasised the importance of content and imagination. Now the backlash has begun. No one has conclusive proof that standards of grammar, spelling and punctuation have declined but employers, exam boards and, most recently, school inspectors, have all expressed concern. In a report on last year's GCSE exams, HMI pointed out that students whose grasp of grammar and spelling was weak were still getting top grades at GCSE.

The decision of ministers to revise the English curriculum was prompted by the conviction that there was political capital to be made out of apostrophes and commas. Ministers also believe the public dislikes coursework and that a system which depends on a profession they distrust cannot be reliable. They also say it is hard to compare coursework standards in different schools.

By contrast, the vast majority of English teachers are strongly opposed to the reduction in coursework. Four out of five schools have joined a campaign to bring back 100 per cent coursework at GCSE. Teachers argue it is fairer to judge children on their work throughout the year, including some timed assessments, and that skills such as persistence and redrafting cannot be tested in traditional exams.

On the curriculum, a compromise is possible. Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, hopes that the working party set up to streamline English as part of the national curriculum review will be able to make adjustments so that there is more emphasis on content and thought. A decision has not yet been taken on the controversial reading lists, designed to ensure that pupils read the classics as well as modern works.

Mrs Barnes says: 'English teachers have been told how lucky they were to get anybody on the working party. But there is still a huge amount wrong in the assessment and curriculum.'

Asked about the effect of the revised curriculum in the classroom, Mrs Barnes said good teachers would continue to teach as they always have done. Certain pupils, however, might find their lessons become less interesting, as weak teachers resort to mechanical exercises to instil grammar and spelling. Officials at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) say the changes will leave imaginative teaching intact but help teachers to focus on accurate language.

David Pascall, former head of the National Curriculum Council, who instigated the English reforms, believes English teaching will change. 'We wanted to complement the creativity in schools with basic skills that we felt some teachers were neglecting. With the reading lists, the whole point is to ensure that every child in every class would be entitled to read a range of authors including Shakespeare and classical prose and poetry. That has not always been the case.'

English teachers find the changes in testing and examinations even more unpalatable than those in the curriculum. Mrs Barnes describes the short tests at seven, 11 and 14 as 'wholly unreliable. We doubt whether a test of one and three-quarter hours is a sensible way to test the achievement of 14-year-olds. The Shakespeare test is pretty silly. Last year, pupils answered some rather bland questions on an unseen part of a play. This year they know which scene will be tested so there's no point in making it a test. It's coursework presented as a test.'

Opposition to cuts in coursework remains as strong as it was three years ago when the cuts were proposed by the Prime Minister. Bethan Marshall, a member of the National Association of Teachers' executive, says: 'We are immensely concerned that standards will fall. To teach children for coursework is to push and motivate them. It is also a much better indicator of what they can do. Schools are going to go back to lots of exam practice essays.'

The SCAA says the reduction in coursework will ensure that GCSE results are more reliable. It promises to monitor carefully the effect of the change on English teaching.

The ideological undercurrent to the English debate is the question of teachers' freedom. The proposed new curriculum stipulates what to do in a way in which the old one did not. The reading list from which teachers must choose, the direction on how reading should be taught and the cuts in coursework restrict their freedom to determine what pupils study and when.

For a minority of teachers the new checks are necessary. Evidence in the HMI report on GCSE suggests the focus on grammar and spelling is salutary. The public is wary of an exam that has no end-of-course test.

But Mr Rowe is right to suggest that ministers have gone too far. The Prime Minister demanded a big reduction in coursework at a time when the Government's distrust of teachers was at its height. Now that Sir Ron Dearing and John Patten, the Education Secretary, are trying to mend fences, the time has come to think again.

HOW THE ENGLISH CURRICULUM HAS CHANGED

Coursework in GCSE, which last year was 100 per cent for two-thirds of pupils, is down to 40 per cent.

Greater emphasis in curriculum on grammar, spelling and punctuation.

More direction on teaching methods, such as ways of teaching reading.

A canon of authors from which teachers must choose.

Pupils must be able to speak 'standard English' by the age of 11.

(Photograph omitted)

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