This Perversity

Over the last few days there have been continuing defences of the GCSE study of poetry in schools for the enlightenment it brings to readers, to name just one of many potent personal and educational benefits.

This has come from poets and writers in general and educationalists and newspaper editorials and I agree with each and every articulation of why poetry is important in general terms and in its sharing/teaching in schools.

This has also come quite specifically as a national assertion on the back of Ofqual making the study and examination of poetry for GCSE English Literature an option for 2021. And this has put me in the utterly perverse situation of agreeing with the widespread sentiments being expressed about the purpose of poetry, and then disagreeing with the context in which this is being so suddenly popular to express.

Perhaps the advocates I advocate, but don’t, have a grip on grabbing the argument now – when it is strictly speaking erroneous – so that it can be continued and built on in the future.

I doubt this. The other uncomfortable perversity is that my stance makes me appear to be agreeing with Ofqual, which I’m not, but I am.

Ofqual in responding to a consultation on GCSE study/examination for 2021 [post-covid, one hopes…] responded by making the decision for English Literature to have three previously compulsory components reduced to two: the option to ‘drop’ any one of the three given.

OK, Ofqual never usually respond meaningfully to consultation and argument, so this makes it all sound suspect. And they could have responded so much more intelligently and educationally, but they didn’t. They made a pragmatic decision, and teachers will do the same.

Now, a few examples just for the sake of exploring. If I was teaching still, I wouldn’t drop teaching poetry and preparing students for examination [this in itself a pragmatic rather than inspiring link, but there you go] because I love poetry, loved teaching it, and believe in its importance and the students’ ability and desire for reading and studying poetry.

But that’s me.

I would also, personally, prefer teaching the poetry to the 19th century novel choices because of the context and expectations defined around the study and examination of those.

But I would understand many colleagues and departments choosing to for purely functional, pragmatic reasons because of, for example, the fact they have already taught the 19th century novel in year 10 [!], the department is more effective/resourced in teaching this, and/or the staffing – maybe few subject-specialist teachers [scandalous but another consequence of abysmal pragmatic decision-making] – dictates this.

As for 20th century drama: well, as ever, the great majority will teach The Inspector Calls because every school has a few tons of resources to do so! This will apply to other drama choices, based on previous experience and again existing resources. It is definitely popular and students do well in responding.

On a quick personal note, as an examiner, I now know The Inspector Calls better than would ever have been possible by teaching it, which I didn’t! All those thousands and thousands of exam responses marked. And I have written on this before: it is always quite overwhelming to read student after student understanding fully the social injustices conveyed through that text, and their genuine abhorrence at it. That said, and on the basis this text has been on syllabuses since before it was written, for all those students from at least 2 years ago and many more before who despised those inequalities exposed in that studied text but who voted for the Tories in the most recent election, this does call into question the longevity of their having an empathy.

I’m sure this so far could seem like the lone voice trying to justify itself under the weight of all those well-known and illustrious voices arguing otherwise. And I know I can be defensive. But I honestly feel compelled to state because I am so frustrated with the perverse situation all of this has put me in, and the fact all of this outpouring of support for poetry should and could have come at other more productive times, especially during the Cummings/Gove consultation on the content and shape of GCSE English Literature for its 2015 start.

But it didn’t.

I do, however, hope that when the driving force for this current situation – coronavirus – is gone, we can galvanise these voices for a rethink of the curriculum as it is. We need to, obviously, address diversity in the texts we teach across all genres. Again, there have been voices quite rightly challenging this, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter awareness, but this was directed at Examining Boards/Awarding Bodies. Although these can make some choices on texts that represent diversity, and have made some over the years, these are subject to Ofqual/Government approval and, as with American authors, such representative texts are banned from examination for GCSE English Literature. The point is, it’s about who you vote for and where you challenge whatever aspect of educational content, control and provision you target for change.

I think people need to be more clever, and pertinent, in the battles they take on. We know this current government blatantly ignore anything with which it disagrees, but there needs to be a principle to the challenge. Yes? Perhaps, as I said earlier, others know different and think getting an argument in now is better than nothing.

I’m surprised Ofqual hasn’t made so much more of smugly responding to the ‘don’t drop poetry’ mantra by simply saying ‘we haven’t’. You’d think The Empty Space That is Nick Gibb would be all over this as probably the only one education reality he understands.

GCSE English Literature – Examining for 2021: Encore

[See previous post for context].

Twitter was all a-flutter yesterday with protests about how poetry is going to be removed from the curriculum for 2021 because of reductions to commitments in coverage for examination. This social media outrage was in fact prompted by articles in the major press – BBC, TES etc. – and most of all of it came from poets/writers who I admire and respect.

As I said yesterday [and to a degree confirmed by this social media and that news thread] teachers would most likely, as a pragmatic decision, drop poetry teaching, and therefore student examination, in order to focus on two defined prose and drama texts, whatever, as I put it, those texts’ likeability.

We could and should be up in arms about teachers having to make pragmatic rather than educational decisions! But they have been doing this for decades and decades! I have been out of the classroom now for 10 years, but in my 30 years as an English teacher – whose curriculum was most often diminished/destroyed by governments of all hues and philistinism [not least the appalling duo of Cummings/Gove] – we always ended up as practitioners making the best of what was dictated.

Pragmatism.

How often did we work our kowtowed butts off making the best of English KS3 SATs teaching of content we deplored? We made a huge success, I think, in finding ways to teach Shakespeare as the dramatic performance it is, only for such to be belittled by pseudo-lit-crit type questioning. And how many ludicrous SATs results did we challenge in our schools to no avail because mark schemes could not accommodate student answers better and beyond the singular defined in those?

Who was to blame for the immediate above? Well, all governments who promoted this educational garbage. And the English teachers who marked these exams. And all the writers and English teachers who did not complain and campaign and respond to consultation documents and whose teacher unions did not support.

By the way: English teachers were the first to refuse to mark SATs one year, for which the unions took credit [!], and Labour under Ed Balls eventually got rid of KS3 SATs.

And what of English KS1 and 2 SATs that have survived so long? Unbelievable destructive rubbish approved by the empty space that is Nick Gibb.

If any of the poets/writers I admire get this far I would like to reassert that admiration now!! I hate forced pragmatism. I see it in the GCSE examining I have done/do [a different planet from SATs, though many might not agree] when the teachers’ narrow and pragmatic focus is so apparent in student responses. I have analysed this in detail often and throughout this blog – including, by the way, how I wrote and complained to every single Education Secretary throughout my teaching career, took the DfE to significant task, and campaigned successfully against the Cummings/Gove desire to make the study of Romantic poets a compulsory entity – and I have understood it because I too experienced as Head of English the pressure of a target and measurement/judgement culture.

Let’s ban exams. I worked in the privileged environment of 100% English coursework assessment with national teacher trail marking, advice, sharing and moderation etc. so know it can work. Coursework itself has become problematic because of plagiarism ease, but there are many ways to give prominence to teacher assessment and make its standardising the most intensive and productive, ongoing teacher-training imaginable.

Well, that isn’t going to happen, so let’s ban the target culture.

OK, that isn’t going to happen either. And so on. So I sympathise with teachers who will make dreadful pragmatic decisions, and I too rue the impact on poetry experience [and study] as I stated two days ago, before the online eruptions.

I’d love to see a continuous national assault on the way the English curriculum is orchestrated by political ideologues, and this done so by all the poets and writers and readers who spoke out yesterday, acknowledging here how Michael Rosen sustains this almost single-handed. I try on this blog but just don’t have an audience.

At the moment, the curriculum across all subjects is driven by the ‘Gospel of Knowledge is All’  Hirschian modelling. The government resourced/recommended/pushed online teaching resource from Oak National Academy itself models this in its reductive approach to teaching and learning.

So it is about voting too [don’t we know this painfully now!!]. But it is also about focusing our ire on those who deserve it, not teachers making tough decisions they won’t necessarily like making.

GCSE English Literature – Examining for 2021

From Ofqual: Consultation decisions – proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021:

gcse el

The relevant bit is in the second paragraph. It will be interesting to see what the majority of schools drop from the 3 areas. I suspect Poetry?

I’m guessing the pragmatism of teaching to two defined texts, regardless of ‘likeability’ of these, will be considered preferable over poetry (in syllabus I know well as examiner) with named texts and unseen questions.

From my examining experience (35+ years), that would be a shame. This said, I am no longer at the sharp end of the teaching of this, especially the broad ‘amount’ many teachers feel compelled to cover – compared with those singular defined texts.

By and large I think poetry responses convey considerable independence of thought and appreciation. Obviously, and as with any area of study/examination, this can be countered by examples of significant regurgitation and/or reliance on the over-taught, especially use of terminology.

But I personally usually find a student’s ‘voice’ in the poetry responses, especially as less reliance on use of terminology – from teachers – has grown as the examination has been in existence.

I’ve also found the unseen responses an increasingly delightful oasis of independent thinking. Not always, but often.

However, as with all change – like my not teaching the exam for 10 years – I am likely to no longer be examining it. We shall see.

Coleridge Strides

site

We [CMT/myself] had a great launch day for the Coleridge Memorial Statue fundraising on Saturday, 25th July. Donations have slowed considerably since then, but I will continue to work to make our site and cause get more attention over the coming days.

It was therefore pleasing for me today to have my poem Definitions of Poetry Over Time, 1 up at Stride as this, from a longer sequence, features Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Symmetry.

Visit the CMT Crowdfunder site here.

Read my poem at Stride here.