Leading Article: Teacher, teacher, wherefore art thou?

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The Independent Online
Could you mistake the identity of Juliet's lover? You know, the 14-year-old Juliet who swans round a balcony in a nightdress, mooning over a man she met at a masked ball; the Juliet who abandons her family for the son of the enemy; the Juliet who ends up draped across her lover's dead body. Even without knowing the details of the Shakespearean tragedy, most people could manage to name the young Capulet's main squeeze.

So when a careless 14-year-old rushing through her national English test last year answered, instead, that Juliet wanted to marry Paris, it did not reflect too well on her schooling. Clearly this child had not even progressed as far as the giveaway title of her Shakespearean set text. Still, we should not be too harsh. Children make mistakes. And an imaginative teenager prone to embellishments could have decided that Juliet did, indeed, want to marry the boring Paris before the sexy Romeo crossed her path.

The 14-year-old we will forgive, and perhaps even her teacher. But the story does not end here. The examiner who marked the faulty script decided it was correct. According to Exeter University's highly critical report of the marking of last year's national English tests for 14-year-olds, this was merely one of countless appalling errors by those who marked the tests. No wonder the authorities were flooded with complaints from schools that felt their pupils had been unfairly marked.

So who were these ill-informed examiners? According to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority which commissioned the Exeter University report, most of the markers are practising or recently retired English teachers. This is a troubling reflection on the literature that is being taught as well as marked in schools. If English teachers do not take the trouble to reread a text they are examining on, can we be confident that they know the subjects they teach any better?

Assessors and teachers need to be tested themselves on the areas of the curriculum they cover. Which means they need also to be trained - and given the time to retrain - in the content of their subjects as well as in pedagogy. Teachers need to know their subject, as well as know how to teach it. When they can do both they should be well rewarded; but if they do not, they should not be in schools at all.

However, there may be a way for errant examiners to persuade the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary to let them keep their jobs. Under what is known as the Waldegrave-Lyell defence, a teacher or an examiner who can show he or she did not knowingly mislead his pupils about Juliet's romantic intentions may yet be able to keep his job. Parents will, of course, lose their faith in English tests and English teaching. But Juliet can look forward to a spicier and more complicated love life.

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