I spit in the eye of fools…

… who would suggest that exams are easy these days.

When I did GCSE English, I read Macbeth and Pride and Prejudice. I might have done some assignments. I cut some pictures out of a magazine for some reason. I wrote an essay about The Go-Between and I did an exam. I didn’t revise, and by-and-large, I had no idea how to revise for English. When I did A level, I read The Great Gatsby, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, The Franklin’s tale, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet and maybe some other stuff. Persuasion, I think. One of my A level teachers loved Persuasion.  I never compared anything. We read everything in fairly microscopic detail.

I kind of knew what a simile was, and a metaphor, but I had no idea why they are used.

Essentially, an English qualification, like my degree, showed that you had read books. If I learned to analyse, if I learned about language, it was by diffusion (not osmosis, as a science friend points out). Nobody, but nobody ever showed me a) HOW to write b) HOW to read c) HOW to write better d) HOW to read better.

Now tomorrow, I will be teaching about another English Lit GCSE poem. In order to get a B or above, I have to get out my post-A-level thinking. That boy has to know about Ozymandias, which I touched on at A level, about sonnets, about power, about psychology, about writership, about similes, about metaphors, about word meanings, about rhyme schemes, about metric metre. And he has to take all of this knowledge and apply it to the poem.

It doesn’t stop there. Then he has to compare it with another poem out of 14 others. At A level, I had to write about one of Wilfred Owen’s poems and I had to know twelve. Sure I had to learn quotes, but I can’t hardly remember them, so brute learning was a bit pointless. Sure, my client can take his unannotated anthology into the exam where I had to learn quotes, but that’s not helpful. That gave me a few quotes I’d learned by heart to navigate during the exam. It gives him 14 whole poems from which he then has to select what might be a good poem to compare with the one ordered by the exam board and then has to pick out the most relevant quotes from it all. By himself.

He has to hold all that knowledge about the poems with his knowledge about essay writing with his knowledge about poetic technique and purpose (God above! I NEVER had to think about WHY a poet used a specific word or a full stop in the middle of the line!)

And if he’s lucky, he might get a B. Understanding of poets’ techniques and purposes. B grade.

So first, don’t tell me they’re easy.

This all has a point. I usually do. Unfortunately, it’s often buried because nobody taught ME about structure and organisation and prioritising ideas. What you get offered to you in my writing is a fleece. Not a hand-woven cardigan. It’s just a mélange of ‘stuff’ all unprocessed and crazy. The washing, carding, spinning and knitting are all an editor’s job. Thank the lord for editors.

My point is this: over the past few weeks, I’ve been having conversations with a poor teacher at her wits’ end with the iGCSE syllabus (see how infectious Steve Jobs was?? Those is are everywhere! No longer International, but i…)

The teacher in question lives about 30 minutes further up from me and she has been working with a girl who is doing the iGCSE. She’s at her wits’ end because the first assignment has come back and the girl she tutors has not done so well. The teacher is distraught because she thinks the faults are her own lack of specific knowledge.

I am sympathetic. A GCSE syllabus should not be so unintelligible, such a series of crazy hoops to jump that it is not accessible to all teachers, be they primary or secondary. Up to 10% of classes in England are covered by supply teachers, who may or may not have specialist knowledge. And 1 in 20 English teachers is not an English graduate. In fact, there are Polish, Hungarian, Danish English teachers. You name it.

And among those 19 out of 20 ‘English’ teachers, some are English language graduates, some have a BEd – so are qualified to ‘teach’ but not to ‘teach English’ specifically. Some have literature degrees and don’t feel competent with the linguistic elements or the creative writing elements. Some trained to teach French and ended up teaching English (and are very good at it!)

So when a primary-trained teacher tries to teach GCSE, I’m not surprised it seems like an impossible task. It shouldn’t be, at all. And Daily Telegraph reports about ‘cheating’ be damned. If by ‘cheating’ you mean understanding the complex code of an exam syllabus, then I guess that’s what it is… ho hum.

One drama specialist primary school teacher is running highly expensive iGCSE courses over in France – luckily, a long, long way away from me, and it annoys me. In fact, two of my students came from her and had given up because endless worksheets and impossible prices meant that they just weren’t getting value for money or a worthwhile education. I never claim to be able to teach other stuff. Not History, not Geography, not Art. Would that same teacher feel okay teaching GCSE Physics?

No, of course they wouldn’t.

Because it would show instantly how crap they were. Year 6 teachers and secondary English and Maths teachers have turned into exam factories, with an ability to dissect an exam syllabus and English/Maths. I don’ t know anyone who’d be a Y6 teacher or a head of English/Maths now. Why would you? It’s an impossible project where YOU (not your pupils) are assessed on your ability to make sense of the nuance and difference between ‘appreciation of language devices, ideas and themes’ and ‘sophisticated interpretation of language devices, ideas and themes’.

So for those teachers who are not Y6 teachers, or not English specialists, it takes a little longer to realise that they need a degree in English to even begin to understand an exam syllabus. It shouldn’t be that unclear and it shouldn’t need interpreting. The Edexcel syllabus might as well be written in Swahili for all the sense it makes to me.

My two DT bugbears today are the ‘outing’ of ‘cheating’ teachers who put on a show when Oftsted arrive, and the demise of the GTC. If you remember, I did a ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ dance when this colossal wildebeest of public spending was axed (well, it will be… two years after it was announced!) A pointless waste of public money. No doubt the Teaching Agency will be the same. Will teachers be ‘forced’ to join it and then given £33.00 for their fee by the government? Not sure why the Government couldn’t have given the money directly to the GTC. Giving it to 400,000 teachers and then taking it back from them seems like stupidity in the making. I wonder how many man-hours it takes to arrange payment to 400,000 teachers then take it back, rather than giving the money directly to the GTC?  Hmmm.

The demise of the GTC is a good thing. It was used as a bullying method to get rid of people against whom management teams had a personal agenda. With 93% teachers getting some kind of (usually pointless) ‘punishment’ (most are allowed to teach still and given a ‘warning’) it’s not exactly a fair legal system. It’s not presided over by legal or employment law experts, or even education experts, just some random teachers. That’s like being judged solely by the jury with no barristers or judges involved. There’s a reason we don’t do this.

That some teachers put on ‘show’ lessons is also no surprise. What the hell do you expect people to do when someone comes looking? If someone comes to look at your house, do you leave your dirty knickers on the floor?

Blinding insights and ‘scoops’ from the DT there!

Even after 4 years out of teaching, I’m still getting my knickers in a twist about it…

Oh well.

I have to do something to stimulate my bloodstream in the morning. Sometimes coffee isn’t enough and cocaine just isn’t readily available. Damn it. I’ll have to stick to getting incensed about DT scoops and about how unintelligible the GCSE English syllabus is, even to the very skilled and trained eye.


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