Who examines the examiners?

10 December 2005
The Times
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SHAKING HIS HEAD IN exasperation, my pupil, Nicolas Christodoulou, 16, asked if he could write an e-mail of complaint to the exam board, AQA. It was a bleak February morning and my English class had just read the “pre-release anthology” issued to all candidates studying GCSE English. The idea was for students to read the anthology carefully and make notes on its content and the different techniques employed by the authors, so as to be able to answer questions on it in their exams. This was the most important material for the course and, since English is perhaps the most important GCSE, it was the most important prose and poetry they would study.

The problem was that the material was excruciatingly dull. The chosen theme was “traffic”. There was a pedestrian broadsheet newspaper article on the M6 toll road, a letter about speed cameras, an opinion piece on traffic wardens, and a selection of dreary poems from “different cultures”, many presented in lacklustre and unconvincing translations.

Nicolas echoed the opinions of all students and teachers in the English department when he explained in his e-mail that the material was exceptionally drab, and not at all motivating. Grimacing, he said, “They need to do better!” When his e-mail to an anonymous officer at AQA was shunted back to him, we all began to speculate about who “they” were. Who exactly decided what went into the anthology? Who chose the set texts for this course and other English qualifications at GCSE and A Level? No editor was named on any of the anthologies or in the syllabuses — again anonymous – and there was no mention of who picked set texts.

When I contacted the exam boards, I found them evasive. The woeful anthology was edited by “senior examiners” and it was a board regulation that the press were not allowed to speak to them. I learnt that senior examiners go through a long and torturous bureaucratic process to justify their decisions. They read the criteria issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and, after consultation with subject specialists and teachers, chose the texts. They have to be careful not to offend anyone. AQA explained that the board deliberately avoids controversial topics because “the examination paper is assessing skills in reading and this can be more accurately assessed if the candidate is reading something that they do not find offensive or upsetting. AQA has a range of centres representing the diverse ethnic and religious composition of the UK and seeks topics that were unlikely to cause offence to any group.”

This is typical of the slippery political correctness of the exam boards, and, by implication, the government approach to education. My pupils — from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds — are crying out to respond to controversial articles. They want to be engaged, not bored. On a fundamental level we are not equipping our pupils properly for adult life if they have not grappled with the controversial issues that face all of us in a calm and rational fashion: what better place than the classroom for this to begin? Why can’t our pupils study articles about Iraq or terrorism? Surely it is ridiculous to say that a child might become so inflamed by reading, say, an article by Simon Jenkins on Iraq that he might scribble wildly on the page and fail?

Precisely the opposite is the case: a good teacher can harness the energy generated by controversial pieces and use that as a building block for pupils to construct a rational response. As Plato pointed out, rationalism and emotion are closely interlinked; you cannot have true rationalism without some intuitive response first.

While exam boards can be timid about their choices for English GCSE, they are quite happy to choose some pretty racey novels for English literature: “English” and “English literature” are separate GCSEs. It is almost as if the novel is viewed as an elevated form that entitles an author to articulate some outrageous views. So the same exam board is quite happy for pupils to study Zadie Smith’s White Teeth with all its criticisms of ethnic groups, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with its savage satire on religion and utterly biased depiction of Greek communists. And thank goodness for that! Some of the best discussions I have heard have been those discussing de Bernières’ novel: some pupils perceive that he is far too nice about the Italian fascists, and unfairly critical of the communists, while others defend his literary presentations.

The process by which the boards choose these texts is exactly the same as enumerated above but clearly they feel more confident defending controversial novels than newspaper articles. Perhaps this is because they know that the more “intellectual” — decode as middle-class — students will read these texts. In many schools, English literature is no longer a compulsory GCSE and is often dropped by weaker students. The lumpenproletariat is fed bland pap, while the clever kids get to deal with “controversy”.

This is deeply worrying. As Frank McCourt’s new memoir, Teacher Man, shows, controversial literature can fire the imaginations of children from the poorest backgrounds. McCourt’s tales of his experiences teaching in some of the most deprived districts in New York show how important it is for a teacher to have good material to work with.

If we are to make our children properly literate, we need to enthuse them with great, challenging work. Clearly the exam boards play a significant role in this, but nobody in particular appears not to be accountable for their choices. At the moment, they are free to bore our children to death without a murmur of dissent.

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt is published by HarperCollins

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