Friday, 15 February 2013

GCSE English

I'm sitting an English GCSE , not because I need to but because I wanted to immerse myself in the experience. I needed to understand what students go through from start to finish when they embark upon this exam ; How they learn, or sometimes don't learn, what they understand about the process , how they approach each task, what they get from it, or don't and whether it enriches their understanding of the English language.

My youngest son will be sitting  this exam in just over 2 years time. He is dyspraxic and dyslexic and struggles with exams in general. I wanted to understand the labyrinthine workings of the exam system and the hurdles he'd have to encounter and how these would affect his chances of getting a good grade.

I feel like an undercover spy but the government now offer free GCSE courses in English and Maths to adult learners , so it was too good a gift horse to ignore and it's all in the interests of the learning process.

Good grief  has it been an eye opener ! As a parent , If your child has no learning difficulty , you may never need to know any of this aside from the odd bit of nagging around exam time and a couple of parents' evenings at school where they'll tell you their predicted grade. Lucky you. If your child is at a good school you can leave it all to them. If neither of these apply then you're in the lap of the gods.

I'm not sure where to start . Deep breath I guess.

Firstly , if you know which exam board will be setting your exam and the correct syllabus code, you can go online and check out the specification. If you have several hours to spare , you'll be guided through a 40 page booklet ( at which point does a booklet become a book I wonder ? ) of  edu-speak with a vocabulary all of its own - you'll encounter words and phrases like ... moderation procedure, consortium arrangements, internal standardisation, terminal rule, multi modal submission, Electronic Data Interchange ... I could go on.

If this isn't enough to confuse you then wait until you get to the AOs ( Assessment Objectives).  They range from AO1 ( sophisticated / Impressive) - AO4 ( Limited -  as will there success outcome in life be  ) . Life is cruel, exams are crueler.

There's a nifty decision tree to navigate , varying permutations of units, then there's a plethora of Controlled Assessments to get your head round, a variety of texts to read , skills to master and make sure you sharpen up your memory skills .You'll know essay titles in advance which means you'll have written a draft before you sit the Controlled exam so if you can memorise what you've written before you'll get the same grade as you achieved for your draft. What's the point ? Isn't this supposed to be an English exam not a memory test ?

... and where is all the literature buried in all of this ? If you can't spell, struggle with reading , have weak processing speed and a compromised memory , the whole process must be a nightmare and you don't even get to enjoy the book !

If I were Michael Gove,  this is what I'd recommend :

Shakespeare - complimentary access to stage productions of the chosen text. Role playing ( in full costume and make-up) for a couple of chosen scenes, a trip to Stratford.

Poetry - every student gets to choose their own poems - they're all free online. If your child has a semantic pragmatic disorder , poetry may well be a closed book. Find some accessible contemporary poets, Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough , Adrian Mitchell , arrange a visit from a local poet - they'd be only too pleased to come in and talk to the students about their writing process and thoughts - pay them of course.

Literary texts - same old , same old. I'm not saying Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird aren't exemplary must-reads but maybe when they're good and ready. There's a wealth of hidden contemporary gems out there ready to be discovered and the children will have a far greater connection with them than something that happened in another continent in another lifetime. You never know they might even enjoy reading them. What a bonus. Cover the literary greats but let them watch the film adaptations as well .

Creative Writing - it should be just that. Let them find their 'voice' . Blogging should be made compulsory.

Spelling - This is the 21st century . We are not living in the time of pointy dunce's hats and standing on stools in the corner of the classroom. Spelling is NOT an indication of intelligence. Some of the brightest minds can't spell for toffeee ( that's a joke) . Their minds are much better employed creating new ideas and exploring the universe. For goodness sake, let children who struggle to spell use spell check . It's a bit like inventing the wheel and then saying that bicycles must operate without them. Yes I know it would be great if they could learn how to spell everything correctly but why punish them if they can't remember all of the ridiculous spelling rules in the English language - and anyway there are more exceptions to the rule than rules themselves so could we concentrate on the content instead please ? In 50 years time , we will look back on our current system and think - weren't we cruel to punish for such a ridiculous thing.

Exams - banned . Their teachers will know whether they've reached the 'required' standard. Rather than battle through the administrative nightmare of controlled assessments, assessment objectives , grade boundaries and the like, let each teacher write an individual report on each student based on practical observation and discussion. Youngsters will have a lot more respect for education and literature and the exam inspectors would be mightily impressed with their opinions and how much better they're able to express them when they're not under the cosh.

There endeth my rant, for now.


  1. Umm, should I admit now that I work in the exams office of a Secondary school? Please don't hate me! I feel sure that the Additional Educational Needs person at your son's school will be well versed in how to assess his needs and it sound like he will be offered a reader and scribe for his exams so, let's just hope his scribe is a good speller ;-)
    Good luck with your exam!

  2. Debs14 , I've just worked out how to follow your blog and have been reading your posts - loving your stories ... and you have a husband who bakes cranberry cookies ?!! Now I'm jealous !
    Forgive me , my rant was in no way intended to upset anyone working in education . In fact, I am in awe of how they manage to maintain their enthusiasm in the face of the growing bureaucracy that threatens to swamp education - it was merely an observation ( and venting of frustration) that children, who try hard but still fail , could access a subject that is so important and might engender a lifelong love of literature that would enrich their lives. In my perfect world , all children , at school leaving age , would have a personal report written about their strengths ( not weaknesses) and their worth would be measured in effort not exam marks . Their potential contribution to society would be assessed in terms of what they have to offer, not the extent to which they have met exam criteria. Their EQ (emotional intelligence ) would be as highly prized , if not more so , as their IQ. Then maybe , those who 'struggle' through no fault of their own , could begin to value and love themselves , rather than loathe their shortcomings. Sometimes that's all that's ever pointed out to them.

  3. I feel your pain Claire. I think we have had an exchange of messages on the subject before via UKS. Don't despair though. My son (with Aspergers) is on the home stretch of GCSEs now and he is doing really well. It has been a very hard road for him and needed much patience and perseverance on my part (with English in particular) but yesterday he handed in his application for a place in the sixth form. Very proud of him. Good luck to you both.
    Fiona xx