Writing Workshops – Cambridge University Press

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Just published, this is a stand-alone book or it can be purchased/used within the expansive GCSE English ‘package’ being offered by CUP for the AQA syllabus to be taught from September 2015.

This book, however, written by myself and Martin Phillips, is not tied to any particular examination board and focuses exclusively on Writing, treating students as writers and underpinned by the ethos that a priority regard for writing skills and experience above assessment objectives is the best preparation for the inevitable requirement that students will have two writing tasks in their final GCSE examination – whichever awarding body sets this.

The workshops aren’t intended to appear particularly innovative in such a text book – apart from excluding the clutter of constant references to AOs and similar – but instead offer straightfoward, tried and tested classroom activities that engage and encourage students as much as is possible in the writing process. That said, we think the stimulus and ideas provided also offer new and appealing material at this level.

Whether bought as a stand-alone or part of the larger ‘package’, there is considerable online digital and other supporting materials specifically for this text, as well as a dedicated, and detailed, teacher’s resource which I have written and will be available free online from, hopefully, April.

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Those ‘specific GCSE skills’ are actually writing skills, but of course the latter informs the former: our ethos. Each workshop begins with – and the language is chosen purposefully – a ‘writing improvement focus’.

Not a Parallel Universe

RBS announces today a loss of £3.5bn [that’s BILLION] for 2014 which is a failure, and yet it will be paying out bonuses to staff from a pool of £421m [that’s MILLION].

A school doesn’t meet its targets [that’s OBTUSE NUMERICAL BENCHMARKS] so is put in special measures which is deemed a failure, and staff, mostly teachers, get blamed and undermined and upset and depressed and maybe leave the job or get sacked in forward-thinking Academies [that’s JUST HOW IT IS].

Apparently you have to pay bonuses to bankers to keep them in the job, however poorly they do.

Apparently you can crap all over teachers and they will come back for more [if they  survive] because they care.

Gove and ‘The Crucible’

gove letter 2

This is the neighing from the horse’s mouth. My local MP had represented my ‘banning American authors query’ in the first instance – thus this response from Gove to him – but I should point out that when I naturally challenged such explanations from this letter again through my MP, he personally responded with more of the above to state he wouldn’t further my questioning because he agreed with Gove, but did so by simply, and blatantly, cut-and-pasting from the DfE/Gove’s justifications – so I stopped that route, and then Gove was gone.

I have made the point about this deceit well enough I think in previous postings, but I thought it useful, for those still interested, to read this if you haven’t already challenged and received similar in the past.

I’ve considered this a ‘clever’ response and argument, and in the negative use of this word I think it is apt enough. There is much that obfuscates in this letter by suggesting there is a grand design across Key Stages 3 and 4 to instill a ‘solid grounding in English Literature’ and for pupils to read ‘widely and freely’. This is completely undermined by his risible notion of the GCSE Orders representing a ‘minimum’ requirement, and not the ‘maximum that we consider them [students] to be capable of studying’. This is so utterly naive [being generous] and deceitful [being candid] in suggesting (a) exam boards/awarding bodies could countenance setting other texts to that minimum, with all the implications for mark schemes and actual awarding grades to accommodate a potentially infinite move beyond that core, and (b) perhaps the most depressingly pragmatic obstacle that there just wouldn’t be time in a full whole-school curriculum for anyone to pack in yet more.

But of course, English students will instead be absorbing a ‘seminal world literature’, and thus those effectively banned American authors within this mix, in their Key Stage 3 curriculum where there would be loads of time for such.

The Crucible as a year 7 starter text perhaps: exploring lust, sin and death as metaphors for the abuse of political power?


I have been searching for a piece I wrote some time ago about my  own secondary school education to post here. I recall writing this about my secondary modern – just a damn good ordinary institution on a council estate in Suffolk – a model from the late 60s to contrast with the target setting and management driven culture model of schools today [or even back then when I wrote it – that culture has been here for some time now!].  However, I can’t find it.

In searching today, but also when I habitually return to such past writing, I come across articles, documents and HOD minutes I have written over the years whilst still in the job. For some reason, I have this masochistic urge to revisit these – they aren’t all dark, but so much of what I had to write was reactive, and usually reacting despairingly, and almost always angrily, to some nonsense from within or outside the school.

I came across the following which was the ending to a memo I was writing to my wonderful team about an impending review from someone in our local authority, someone with whom I had little respect or regard and who lived up to those feelings. As was my wont, I framed the memo by, at the beginning, referring to my recent reading of some excellent Raymond Chandler-esque narratives my year 12 students had written for publishing within the school, and commenting on how their writing expertise was a clear reflection of the superb teaching from the entire English team as those students had worked through the school to year 12. I ended with this:

I thought long and hard about the impending review. I’d worked with shysters before and this had all the hallmarks of some sham run by a gang of people in high places with low morals. It could rain all day on this parade but nothing could wash the stench of an unnecessary intrusion away. You can’t play chess with a dog that just wants to gnaw at a bone, I thought. You could kick its teeth out and even chain it somewhere dark and dirty but dogs were a dime a dozen in these kinds of streets. There were always more to hound you. I’ve been doing this job for years and I’ve managed to surround myself with a few good people who know the difference between a naked dame and a girl without any clothes. I didn’t want no one telling me which one I could sleep with. Neither did they. I took another drink and wondered how many more I’d need before a new day promised me something it would take too long to deliver.


Teachers who can and do
Teachers who survived
Teachers who look beyond your roots
Teachers who see inside
Teachers who teach from the hip
Teachers who annotate all their lives
Teachers who have the stare
Teachers who care
Teachers who set classrooms on fire
Teachers who understand knowledge is the inferior
Teachers who busk lessons, beautifully
Teachers who shouldn’t be there
Teachers who definitely detain
Teachers who return the ball rounder
Teachers who laugh learning
Teachers who have their own children
Teachers who ssshhh too much
Teachers who taught whole families
Teachers who earn a nickname
Teachers who never gave an assembly
Teachers who stay above on the same plain
Teachers who preference metaphor
Teachers who keep it a puzzle
Teachers who are remembered

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Gove is gone, but I believe it is acceptable at the very least to toe-poke such a man when he is down…..

Amongst the many deceits from Gove regarding his shaping of the new GCSE English syllabi to be taught from 2015 was the assertion that he had consulted over 151 professionals to inform this [see the document INDIVIDUALS CONSULTED IN THE PROCESS OF DRAWING UP THE DRAFT PROGRAMMES OF STUDY FOR THE NEW NATIONAL CURRICULUM, if you want to check].

I have it on good authority from someone who makes it a living to investigate this kind of politician’s assertion, that the claim is a significant porky pie. On the list referenced above there are indeed about 151 names, but to be precise from the start, these were for all subjects out for this consultation, and of these, 45+ are attributed to having been consulted on the English Language/Literature proposals at that time. Impressive statistics overall – if they were honestly calculated from the start, or any of them true.

I had been informed that the bulk of the names on that list actually applied to individuals who had merely attended nationally organised conferences on the proposals in general. So their names appeared on an attendance list. They went along. Had some coffee. Listened. Perhaps had lunch [I don’t know the timetables for the day]. Went home.

I decided to check this out to the best of my ability and made contact with one of those named people on the English list, a highly regarded teacher of and writer on English, and he confirmed that he had indeed attended one such conference. Consulted? Not a chance. He went along. Had coffee. Perhaps had lunch. And so on. I believe that the singular biggest ‘consultant’ and influence on the supporting of Gove’s ideas was Janet Brennan, former HMI with key experience in Primary education [and then an independent consultant for these Secondary education proposals].

Admitted, that’s just one actual verified statistic against the 151, give or take a few, unverified by Gove. Whilst bound to trust my own, I leave it to your judgement where you think the most likely truth lies [oh, the cleverclogs of it all].

As to Lies, damned lies, and statistics: no doubt Gove would like to attribute this famous quote – if he had to – to his British Tory chum Disraeli [though that has apparently never been possible to find and thus prove] rather than that pesky American author Mark Twain who popularised it.

Literature Written in English

As part of a document a friend/colleague and I submitted to the consultation process on the ‘new’ GCSEs to be taught from 2015, we included the extract that will follow on this issue of effectively banning American authors. The submission was co-signed by nearly 40 other Senior Examiners, many of whom also had significant positions and responsibilities in teaching, and all bringing to bear their collective and irrefutable wisdom as teachers and examiners of GCSE English Literature. The main thrust of the argument then was, however, a concern about the idea – again from Gove – that there should be a compulsory and discrete study of the Romantic poets. I’d like to think our arguments had some impact on this idea not making it through to the final Order, though it is both sad and still unbelievably censorial that the exclusion of American authors went ahead.

The astute observations on Matthew Arnold and other felicitous insights are from my colleague, whereas I contributed a more pragmatic, if similarly passionate stance. I share again to keep this debate alive, and informed. I will quickly mention that I know there is at least one HM government epetition [but not from the government!] doing the rounds on this issue, and whilst the gist is absolutely correct, I am concerned that in any attempts to continue working on arguing for changes, we need to be exact in outlining the context as it is [not just how we feel]. To the extract:

[b] The proposal states that the study of English Literature ‘should develop knowledge and skills in reading, writing and critical thinking. This allows candidates to develop culturally and acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written’, (writers’ emboldening).

This is a troubling statement in many ways. Obviously, ‘knowledge’ in itself is useless; understanding is essential. But the statement reveals some illusions. The sentence has been borrowed and butchered from Matthew Arnold’s seminal essay The Function of Criticism. The statement actually reads ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’; this extension is logical, for quite obviously the ‘best’ in the fullest term cannot be found entirely within the works of British writers.

Therefore, in the interest of academic integrity when designing this new curriculum, could the second part of this study be extended from ‘British’ writers to include ‘Literature written in English’? Otherwise it would be impossible for students to develop culturally since British writers have necessarily narrowed concerns. A specific rationale will be made in the following paragraph for the inclusion of Steinbeck’s influential novel Of Mice and Men with its overt reference to British writing in the Robert Burns epigram – an example of the cross-fertilisation of cultures, and similar is evident also in Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr Pip. Such shared cultural relevance is also found in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus where there is a clear consideration of the damage and violence caused by sectarian enmity, a highly contemporary issue; similarly, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the sort of study of racism that could not be home-grown on British shores, and yet this makes it all the more apt as example. In short, the inclusion of ‘Literature written in English’ would allow considerations of contemporary issues with which – and there is clear evidence of this established through the current GCSE examinations – candidates from all cultural, racial and religious backgrounds can engage freely and convincingly.

Without challenge, key amongst these texts is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The popularity of this for study in schools at GCSE is undoubtedly its length as a novella [in an English but also whole-school curriculum burgeoning with content and commitment], but it is much more than this. In a nutshell, this text manages to prove itself remarkably accessible as a read, and thus appeals to the widest range of students possible, but it also provides content that is challenging in terms of ideas from the broadest academic to simply but fully engaged levels. To remove the potential to study this extremely popular prose text because its writer is American would seem to be ideologically restrictive as well as pragmatically nonsensical. English Literature should concern itself with, as already acknowledged, aspects of a distinctly English/British heritage, but it should also more widely concern itself with literariness, and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men provides a uniquely accessible route into studying a writer’s use of language [description and dialogue], use of symbolism, character portrayal and development, and cultural, social and historical significance. As a text for assessment at GCSE, it has a proven track record of eliciting a full range of responses. This is also a text with a proven track record to meet this document’s stated aim to ensure students read widely for pleasure and as a preparation for studying literature at a higher level in its Subject aims and learning outcomes.

The ideal literary study promotes ‘a current of true and fresh ideas’, as Arnold continued to say. The idea of ‘freshness’ must rest on an understanding based on relevance of what a writer says and how such ideas are expressed. It would be dishonest and unproductive to arbitrarily impose limitations of national identity on a study of cultural contexts.

Matthew Arnold also warns about the limitations of such an imposition, a rejection of study of ‘foreign’ thought, fearing that ‘if we invent the whole thing for ourselves as we go along’, then there will be ‘plenty of bustle but little thought’. This statement is too close to home for comfort; in the interests of academic honesty do not allow ideas of the supremacy of British Literature deprive our candidates of the opportunity to develop socially, historically, culturally and academically. Avoid the damaging focus on an apparently arbitrarily-chosen poetic movement, replacing it with a wide Anthology. Then go on to extend the field of study to include ‘Literature written in English’. In other words, let us do the best for our candidates in drawing up a contemporary as well as a traditional curriculum.

Crushed Stetson

Doorways are portals to dreams, but when they close
cut like a guillotine. Red flows, and lust is layered on
the floor as a metaphor – and this cherry ink too
chastises or caresses. There is too much love of these
imaginings, how the combing of wet hair is an
ablution for the ridding of sins, or grooming for an
illicit affair. Someone is walking and talking but they are
really the litotes in a semantic field of verbs, now as
past participles of secret authorial meanings rather than
words. There are times when we need to see beyond that
single sketched line of the hill, see the other landscapes
that hide within the fog and fear, but eyes are for opening
not drawing on. In a room where someone is preaching
better lessons are taught and learnt when chanced upon.

These initial posting are a benchmark for the types of sharing I will be doing on this new blog, and I have presented these four before putting it out there. Putting it out there to see if I can better my increasingly regular Facebook ducks [you will find threads throughout postings….]

You shouldn’t have to explain a poem but this one could be difficult without some context [and that’s a concern to have to admit]. Briefly, it was written in response to examining GCSE English Literature exam responses. Before I continue, I must stress that as an examiner I am every year essentially blown away with the overall high quality of student responses: informed, empathetic, articulate. Teachers have to take considerable credit for this.

However, there is still a vestige of the past the intrudes on some student answers – and this can be seen in whole class or even whole school responses – and it is where the Literacy Strategy and in particular its word level obsession still insinuates its control. It is when the language of the text is broken down constantly into linguistic references, as if this naming explains the nuances of an author’s writing style and intentions. It doesn’t.

As frustrating as I can find this as an examiner, let alone a reader, I always also sense the teacher’s panic in giving students such an overtly critical vocabulary, as if the correctness of the terms will impress and earn marks, marks needed to get grades to meet targets. Of course, some teachers will believe in the primacy of such analysis – sadly – but I think many feel the weight of that Strategy still with us, as if it did make sense. It didn’t.

You also get the schools who have picked up a waft of an idea and instill it in GCSE students like an absolute. So in the poem there is reference to the notion that at the end of An Inspector Calls the curtain comes down like a guillotine and this relates, politically, to the French Revolution. As for the multitude of messages in Slim combing his hair….

But then his self-barbering won’t be relevant in the future.

The Effective Banning of American Novels from GCSE English Literature

The duplicity of language: of course what I mean here by effective isn’t that Gove’s decision was well done – though from his Machiavellian point of view, it was brilliantly done – but that this was/is the inevitable outcome.

Being duplicitous was one of his major contributions to his role as Education Secretary. In the details below this introduction that I also sent to Nicky Morgan, I outline how utterly deceitful Gove was in his defence of his decision. How did we let him get away with it? I will be writing more on this later.

And lest it look like sour grapes or a fruitless nostalgic delve: I think the fight to reverse this decision should still take place, but more importantly I am sharing as a warning that we all need to be more proactive about these political shenanigans. But more of this in a later posting. Here is the ‘scenario’ I outlined:

The Effective Banning of Texts

Technically, an Exam Board could set extra/other texts for a GCSE English Literature exam from 2015, including those by American authors, as the Order represents the minimum content. So Gove is ‘correct’ in this assertion. But there are two insuperable reality checks to be considered in this scenario:

1. No Exam Board and no school would set/undertake any extra English Literature study at GCSE/KS4 because there isn’t time in that packed curriculum – English and all other subjects – and this is the obvious, common-sense, pragmatic answer to that mischievously stated possibility from Gove, and thus effectively he has excluded American authors from the English Literature GCSE curriculum.

2. If anyone were to pursue his technically correct if wholly improbable scenario, the other damning question must be, from which part of the prescribed minimum areas/authors for study would any extra examined texts be able to gain their marks?

If, as Gove is arguing, you allow for other study, the marks for that as a percentage to be awarded in a GCSE examination has to come from somewhere else. So does it come from Shakespeare? Does it come from Poetry [and the Romantic poets, for example]? Does it come from the study of British authors?

Gove has promoted three authors/areas [and others] as his essential core for GCSE English Literature, so how could he in reality agree to their study, in effect, being diminished by further/other study? Any other texts in this scenario would necessarily have to take a percentage of the rewarding marks from the very CORE he so ideologically – and demonstrably through legislation – demanded.