The Failures of the English Examination System

I am currently following/engaged in a debate about the inherent intention of all education examination systems to fail a proportion of students. I don’t think it is possible to dispute that as a self-evident consequence of any such system: in the context of Education, and therefore teaching and learning, that examination seeks to measure what has been learned by the examinee, and as a measurement there will be an explicit criteria for pass and fail [otherwise it wouldn’t be an ‘examination’].

Now anyone who knows about and understands the actual workings of English SATs [and presumably all SATs] knows immediately that this ‘measurement’ is far broader, and sinister, and is intended to be used – as raw data – to measure the ‘success’ [and by implication for those not attaining this, the ‘failure’] of teachers and schools – not just examinees.

I think GCSE is a little more problematic in ascribing to it the same inherent purpose, but I acknowledge fully that grade boundary adjustments, made on an annual basis, are done so to provide a distribution curve, and like any such graph there is a point on that arc where above is ‘success’ and below is ‘failure’. I would also add that as a Head of English I did suffer the appalling impact of this at an individual school level where regular meetings of senior staff at ‘Grade Watch’ focused almost entirely on targeting students wobbling on C/D borderlines: hardly a worthy position to defend, though I have to say its imposition was entirely political, and not exclusive to any one political Party.

Before progressing, let’s just dismiss SATs as inherently crap. I’ve said enough on this blog to make my feelings known about these, especially for English and especially for SPaG.

I don’t intend to wholeheartedly – or even halfheartedly – defend GCSE. The key problem with GCSEs is that there is this notional ‘success’ of attaining a grade C or above, whereas a D and below is essentially a ‘failure’. This is inscribed in the public consciousness by years of having this dichotomy [and I guess GCE and CSE, in my student and early teaching lifetime, was the first polarity] in the public examination culture. It is further reinforced by employer expectations – you can’t apply for many jobs without a grade C or above in Maths and English, and/or a certain number of such passes; and you can’t apply for further education without similar. So, this is about as insidiously inherent a system programmed to fail a set number of students as one can have.

As teachers, we will all know students we have taught who at GCSE didn’t attain a grade C or above and yet who we would never regard as ‘failures’. Indeed – and this is almost a crass simplification, but nonetheless true – we will know many students who achieved a C and even well above who we might regard as less ‘successful’ than our ‘failed’ students: for all kinds of academic but also personal reasons!

A precursor to this problem in my teaching experience at secondary level was Key Stage 3 results in English. Students who didn’t attain level 4 and above were in many respects deemed as ‘failures’ at this level [and worse, if they had a L4 at KS2 and didn’t then get a L5 or above at KS3, they and their teachers were also then ‘failures’, despite the fundamental differences in the type of testing, though equally punitive and narrow]. What I know from this experience, however, is that KS3 results were very often completely crap at being a judge of future ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’ [I might just as well stop using quotation marks as we can assume all references to such are suspect terms].

So, pausing, what is the answer? Scrap all of it? Probably a good idea. I’m all for revolution, but in my 30 years of teaching plus 6 years of retirement and still angry as hell at the system/s, I don’t think the profession as a whole has the stomach for this. It could have the collective strength, but it doesn’t use this. Shameful really.

Therefore, I have argued consistently on this blog that we should focus our attention and attack on what can be demolished. SATs, especially SPaG in English [these are blatantly ridiculous], could be stopped, as events this year – much of it simply government incompetence – have shown. And that attack should be based entirely on the educational arguments. Leave the elements of stress caused to students [and teachers] and other unacceptable consequences to the broader public and profession to argue.

Back to GCSEs. So do we get rid of these? OK, I’m up for that. I’ll probably mark them only one more year before my paper – the last I think – goes online. And replace with what?

The obvious answer would be teacher assessment, and at GCSE presumably coursework. However, that route has been heavily compromised by the technology that can aid plagiarism – and very clearly has [probably because of the relentless pressure to succeed] – so this isn’t really an option, and controlled assessments, which began in earnest after I left teaching, proved very unpopular and also problematic for many reasons. And even coursework suffered the pass/fail dichotomy because the C grade pivot still existed.

Teacher assessment then would have to be on all kinds of in-class and somehow supervised tasks with detailed written commentaries from teachers – avoiding all grading, numerical or alphabetical – that relate knowingly to and as a celebration of the attributes demonstrated, with even perhaps [this is very tentative] recommendations to their usefulness/application and so on.

Bugger. That would be tough. I’m up for it though. It would require the most colossal, sustained and committed in-service training on a regular national scale, and there are existing models of such good practice historically from trial marking and attendant consortium meetings, as well as examination face-to-face standardising meetings. Costly? No cost would be too big to produce a system that worked for all students. Likely?

So, as someone [as I have written recently] diminished as a Head of English by a target culture that meant I and my school failed to meet both KS3 [in the past] and GCSE targets, reinforced by the philistinism of an Inspection system, and even that of a local advisory service, I am not going to be a complete champion of the GCSE system as it exists, but I do work in it now and do the best I can. And I hate the sound of that ‘the best I can’ because it can seems so pathetically noble, but I see and use it much more pragmatically, and with eyes wide open – and very often mouth shouting – and think for now it has to do.

Unless you’ll join the revolution. Teachers don’t even join unions let alone unions join unions, so I’m not holding my breath. Let’s beat the shit out of SATs. If we do that, we can assess how ready our gathering is for further conquest.

Grandpa’s Wallet – Driving License

driving licence

‘Restricted’. This made sense to me when I noticed, and I presume it was on the basis of my Grandpa’s age at the time of issue in 1963, a two-year license.

I don’t have a photograph to hand of my Grandpa’s car, but I feel sure I must have one somewhere. My memory is that it was large, rounded and dark, a Buick or Plymouth I imagine for no informed reason. I can only recall being driven in it once as a very young boy, so this in itself is an odd memory to have retained, as I must have been in the car more than that one journey.

It was into town, along that one main road in and out, so on the rise outwards where my Grandpa lived, down into town to park, as I have called it elsewhere, in that butterfly parking way common in American small towns, the cars at diagonal angles lining the single road either side: like splayed wings to each side of the body of a road.

We went into the bar/saloon, and I can’t imagine my Grandpa went for a drink – and I don’t have any memories of him drinking alcohol at home, just chewing tobacco and smoking a pipe and the occasional cigar – not least because he was driving, so perhaps just to meet up with and talk to a friend. It was a long dark narrow room with men in the back to the left, probably playing pool. I’m thinking I would have been around 8 years old, or younger, though I have no idea, so this is a strange recall.

I also remember feeling so completely safe being driven in the car. I sat in the back seat, I’m sure, and it was a huge space with the most wonderful comforting smell that I know as an olfactory memory but have no other way of defining in detail, and I don’t imagine it was leather as it seems to me it wouldn’t have been a car made to that expense.

My Grandpa drove into town so slow, but it wasn’t through uncertainty – again, this is all the surmise of thinking back all those years – and it was steady and sure and a consummate feeling for me of being safe and secure. How I will at the young age have instinctively transferred his love and care into a simple trip into town in a large car.

Consummate Journey

I’m sure, I’m sure
with Grandpa and secure

in that butterfly,

after he drove into town
to splay wings,

lining the road either side,
not to drink

I think; I think
having no idea,

but I am sure
feeling so completely safe

on that simple trip
into town

for no informed reason
down into a strange recall

because he was driving,
just chewing the

surmise, back all those years:
wonderfully comforting

to have retained –
memory is no expense.

Grandpa’s Wallet – Dieting

diet sheet

This was of simple interest: my grandpa was a big man but not obese, and he had worked hard all his life and had wholesome home-cooked food throughout that time [no ready meals or take-aways…] so I was surprised, probably naively, that back in 1961 there was already a concern for diet and healthy eating. I do like the warning imperative at the beginning! That double negative is quite foreboding.

‘Vision Helmet’ by David Briggs – Maquette Press

David Briggs is an Eric Gregory Award winner and published widely, including with Bloodaxe and Salt. This new chapbook from Maquette Press is a collection of poems bristling with ideas that challenge the reader to hang on to the unravellings, encountering clever handholds of language along the visionary way.

The title poem offers an insight into the workings of the Vision Helmet, a device to reveal the partially known/recalled as fuller if only momentary revelations, perhaps like poetry itself that grasps the fleeting but with its clarity, or even a more mundane if comforting moment ‘like old friends at a reunion party’ who share social memories. The visions can also offer more than you ever imagined, but you’ll need to read the poem to discover that surprise.

Briggs further explores in Sauce for the Goose what seems to be this notion of sudden if temporary self-discovery by looking at those who don’t seize their day’s moment, or cannot process the randomness of percipience,

‘catching in their minds
like plastic bags in winter trees’

This poem too ends on a wonderfully oblique metaphor, and you know what you’ll have to do to make this literal discovery.

More overt observations are cast in political poems about Afghanistan and Angola, and the first The Games We Play chronicles the 35mm film reel narrative of ‘a ten-year-old boy/playing stick-and-wheel’ whose in-situ story of play is viewed in the paradox of the ‘white AC’ed room/in a gallery in Downtown Toronto’ where the poet uses his own art to empathise with the film’s art in placing one moment of simple pleasure against the consciousness of potential catastrophes inherent in war and/or the subsequent, apparent peace ‘…post-Bush/Blair Afghanistan’; and the second Newsworthy uses a satirical tone to present more of these everyday poles of existence in worlds far more precarious than ours, where the distance between play and death or the classic haves and have nots is encapsulated in this bleak apt line, ‘in that landline-poked limbo’.

Throughout this excellent collection Briggs presents potent and evocative ways in which the writer envisions the world and makes it known – in its literal or metaphoric moment – so that the more ostensible in First They Came… is seen in the same way most of us see it, ‘…I saw the refugees on television/cradling confused dogs in dinghies’ and the context for such desperation is simply if catastrophically real, like the Mediterranean drought which

‘….came so often that farmers walked away
from their fields, were found hanging
from rafters in barns even the rats
had abandoned….’,

whereas the more mysterious in Faustian is seen by choices we make or are made for us, here as the soldier returning home is ‘waymaking a desire line’ where reflections on being a ‘…blue-eyed,/ghost-haired, cornstalk boy’ are played against the judgement/proposition offered by an unknown watching old man, so that the soldier is faced with his own decision-making,

‘This, then, is your one chance: a moment
wherein the accumulated wisdom
of a turbulent life will be weighed
in the feather-light scales of your choice.’

I’ll close this brief review by mentioning two further poems that typify both the richness of Briggs’ crafting within poems and that which shines overall in this delightful chapbook collection.

The first On Show Time represents a lightish mood as the poet reflects on middle age (well, forty – he clearly hasn’t heard how sixty is the new forty and hopeful middle age….) with a comic commentary on how ‘Adland’ seeks to assuage advancing years with its ‘slowness fetished’ advertising like

‘the pyroclastic flow of gravy
over beef and potatoes,

a solitary 4×4 on a silver ribbon
of clear road through a National Park, etc.’

This is set against memories of youth and an energetic bike ride where the poet crested a hill on a heath to look out on his ‘untested potential’.

The second is the closing poem Lullaby, a darkly ironic rumination on the dire ‘cost/of the sleep that eluded us’ when ‘black dreams….fledged into the room/seeking the mosquito-thick/skies of their nighthunting’, a long line I have truncated to give a gist of the poet’s distinctive skill with language and ideas rather than spoil the reading of the whole – a genuinely lively experience.

And it is that truly engaging reading experience that draws us into these at times perplexing ideas, as well as work layering more concretely yet no less meaningfully. After all, it is as a reader of poetry that you want more than surface detail about or familiar interpretation of the world in which we live and, occasionally, share similar experiences, and Briggs’ writing in this collection will encourage you to ‘risk the night’s small teeth at your throat’.

For further details, and to purchase for £5, go here.

Numpty Nicky


This is a story about Numpty Nicky. It is a story about right and wrong. Read the story and then think about what you think is right and wrong.

Our story starts with Numpty Nicky arguing with a room full of teachers. She is telling them what they have to do.

‘You will, you will, you will!’ Numpty Nicky is shouting, banging her hands on a table. She is yelling at teachers. She is telling them what they have to do as teachers. Many of the teachers are laughing.

‘I am the Education Secretary! I know what is best! I make the decisions!’ Numpty Nicky continues to howl at the teachers. Some of the teachers are crying. Some of the teachers are crying with laughter.

‘Is it you or that bad man Nick Gibb telling us what to do?’ one teacher shouts back at Numpty Nicky.

‘I’m in charge! I’m the bad person, I mean the person that makes the decisions!’ Numpty Nicky hollers back. ‘And don’t be sexist,’ Numpty Nicky uses a big word and frowns like she has said something important.

Now all of the teachers are laughing, though some are booing too. They make a noise,


One woman is laughing so much she pees her pants. But she keeps laughing. Numpty Nicky is red in the face.

‘You will, you will, you will all become academies!’ Numpty Nicky screams. ‘I am not going to change my mind! It is in the White Paper! I am the Education Secretary! This is what you will do!’ Numpty Nicky yells and bangs her hands on the table some more.

‘Why do we have to be academies?’ one teacher asks above the din. ‘I don’t want to be an academy.’

‘Because I said so!’ Numpty Nicky waves her finger back at him.

A few weeks later Numpty Nicky is on TV. She is being asked questions. She isn’t yelling.

‘We are not going to make all schools academies,’ Numpty Nicky is saying calmly and with a weird look on her face.

‘But you said you would,’ the stern person asking the questions tells her. ‘You said you definitely would. All of the schools. Every one of them. You said you made all of the decisions.’

‘Well,’ Numpty Nicky says in reply, ‘it is the right thing to do but I am not going to do it now.’

‘Doesn’t that make it the wrong thing to want to have done?’ the person asking the questions asks.

‘I have to go home now,’ Numpty Nicky says.

That is the end of our story.

Do you think Numpty Nicky was right to want to do something wrong? Do you think Numpty Nicky was right to not do something wrong even though she still thinks that the something wrong was the right thing to do?

Do you think Numpty Nicky was right to go home? Do you think it would be right for Numpty Nicky to stay at home?

What do you think about right and wrong?

Spam at X-Peri

The following image is titled Eschatology of Spam by Daniel Y. Harris:


I am delighted to have a set of six of my spam poems published by Daniel Y. Harris, Editor-in-Chief, on his X-Peri site, a wonderful forum for experimental work. Read them on the site here.

My first spam poems Found in Dissonance were published by smallminded books – a foldable chapbooklet – in 2012. These poems were found in a significant swathe of highly literate email spam I received some years ago, but only for a short time, and now sadly no more. Ironic to say, I know.

Further poems from this source have been published here and there online, and the six on X-Peri are published for the first time.

From what little I understand about such email spam, existing text is used by senders so that it can be transferred and invaded into your email account/stream, seeming to be a genuine language source. What is interesting is that this content had no other detail: certainly no links – that dangerous enticement – or advertising of any kind. Just an amazing cacophony of complex language.

Writing from this was a challenging experience. I needed a dictionary to discover meanings in many if not most words, wanting a semblance of focus in what I would then craft/compose from this. The other challenge is for the readers, assuming they want to take it on: I should guess most would need a dictionary too.

I’ve commented before on my delight at having more experimental work published in International Times, and I am similarly pleased with X-Peri and editor Daniel Y. Harris for presenting these, and I recommend his own writing there, as well as further images, and the work of many others.


Grandpa’s Wallet – Zip Code, House and Poem

The next item from my Grandpa’s wallet that prompted a response is this:

zip code

It isn’t special or important, just the code for Elk Horn, and perhaps he never bothered to memorise and kept for info. It did, however, encourage me to look at a google map of Elk Horn, to see if I recognised any places – which I couldn’t – but to then see if I could find whether my grandparents’ house is still there, even though I don’t have an actual address.

What I did recall, and mentioned in yesterday’s post, was that it was on the main road in and out of Elk Horn. So I went on Main Street and traveled visually out of town, or what I recall was out as we would arrive in from Omaha from the opposite direction. The small house with its porch – though most will have them in America – was also as I clearly remember on the left hand side of the road, so that’s where I looked.

And I am sure this is it:


This has to be it – one of the smaller houses on this road, with the porch, and the two windows either side for the two rooms, though I think it was open plan. This is the porch where my Grandpa would sit, on the left as you look, with his pet bee in the summer. Really.

Perhaps not of that much interest to the casual reader of this blog, but it is an amazing find for me, especially in the nostalgic mood I am in with his wallet. But I will leave this discovery at that.

I’ll close this remembrance on another slant. I was going to post a poem I had written about my Grandpa and published in the Anglo-American poetry magazine Argo in 1979. Published in Oxford where I was living and studying, it also had Peter Porter and Peter Levi in that edition and I thought I had ‘arrived’ as a writer. It is a natural celebration to have had, as fleeting as it was in being realised!

Looking at the poem yesterday I was surprised how poor I now feel it was, and is. Whilst earnest and carefully crafted, I seemed to try and write everything there was to write about my Grandpa, especially all of the naming details I could. It is in three parts and concludes with a self-referencing piece on the act of writing, the intrusion from my literary studies at the time. So I am not posting it here. It is of its time. But I did write this yesterday, and it is a dedication to the memory of my Grandpa I now prefer:

Grandpa Carlson

He slept alone in the whole broad attic and
I heard his slow heavy steps up the turning stairs
as she read me a bedtime story in her room having
un-turned that surprising long hair from its bun.
In the day he’d be on the outdoor porch communing
with a bee, or riding the rocker’s run, plug ringing in
the living-room spittoon, cigar smoke later on breath
or being blown into my ear to send an ache away.

He would have been aware I took that dollar bill, a curfew
for being home not punishment but because he’d
always know, and when the driver rode by and stopped
with his window down – dried mud on the side of his
face – Grandpa didn’t need to see my hands to warn the
man how the day had been hot and to be on his way.

The following photo is of my Grandpa Axel and Grandma Aasta with me at 3 years old, but not at their home, probably around 5 years or so before the main memories in the poem:

g g and me0002

Grandpa’s Wallet – Aasta May

I was going to save and use this another time, finding it sweet that the only ‘calling’ card in my Grandpa’s wallet with one of his children’s name was of my mother, Aasta May, then Carlson.

As it would have been her 89th birthday today – she passed in September, 2005 – it seemed right to refer to this now. Aasta was also the name of her mother and obviously my Grandma. By all accounts, the name means many things, from Greek and Latin origins ‘star’, ‘august’, ‘dignified’, ‘like a star’, and perhaps more contemporarily ‘love’, this latter in Norwegian apparently, and as my mother’s family is of Danish decent, with the small town of Elk Horn being a significant Danish community, I am sure that is what it means, for all kinds of reasons:

aasta may carlson

Grandpa’s Wallet – The Barn

I’ve had my Grandpa Carlson’s wallet for many years now, dipping in and out of the remnants a man keeps in one and carries around to see what I can discover about him to add to my fond memories as a child and grandson until his death in 1965.

As a self-indulgence I am going to write about him through various prompts from those slips of paper in the wallet, today’s an insurance premium receipt:

The Barn

This is special for two reasons, the first because it is the year of my birth, and second because it is the receipt for insuring, in addition to his house and household goods, his barn.

My Grandpa and Grandma did not live on a farm, as would be implied by having a barn. They lived in a house with a porch and a stove inside on the main road in and out of Elk Horn, Iowa. The barn, as I recall, was large, and just happened to be behind the house. It was filled with the dried corn husks that were used to fuel the stove on which my Grandma cooked – amazing chicken meals with even more amazing gravy – and where my Grandpa kept his empty bourbon bottles that I would sneak out there to sniff and loved for the sweetness and which no doubt has something to do with my continued fondness for the drink today.