English and the Law of Unintended Consequences

English and Media AMC headshot1Centre co-director, Andrew McCallum, warns against responses to recent curriculum and GCSE changes that potentially risk limiting students’ experience of English at secondary level.

The law of unintended consequences finds rich pickings in education, nowhere more so than in teaching English to 11-16 year olds. Policies and initiatives introduced with good intentions soon become distorted when confronted with the demands of all-pervasive inspection and assessment regimes. Controlled conditions assessment anybody?

English is currently in the midst of considerable changes, most, if not all, designed with seeming good intentions. The revised KS3 National Curriculum, up and running for over a term, is much shorter than previous incarnations, allowing teachers more freedom to devise a curriculum to suit their particular students. With schools no longer required to report on attainment at the end of Year 9, the first three years of secondary school also no longer need to be distorted by the exigencies of testing.

The new GCSEs are relatively straightforward in design, and deterrents against early and repeated entry should make English a more humane experience for large numbers of students. The parity given to Language and Literature in the new accountability measures to be introduced in 2016 (Attainment 8, Progress 8, EBacc etc.) also means that the future of the latter as a subject is secure.

So in light of this (deliberately rose-tinted) summary what could possibly go wrong? Lots, it seems, according to many of the teachers who come to our Centre. Here is a selection of the unintended consequences that are beginning to emerge and are worrying many English teachers:

More testing not less
Schools are being advised by highly influential organisations to enter students for a whole series of externally marked tests in Y9 and 10 that lie outside the scope of end of Y11 accountability measures. There is no suggestion that this type of testing is conducive to an expansive curriculum that opens up opportunities rather than closing them down.

A reductive, repetitive curriculum
Some schools are considering teaching GCSE texts in Y9 and then re-teaching them in Y10 and 11 out of anxiety about preparing students to answer on challenging whole texts at the end of their GCSE courses.

A lack of diversity
The KS3 National Curriculum requires pupils to read ‘a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, including in particular whole books, short stories, poems and plays with a wide coverage of genres, historical periods, forms and authors’. However, to meet the challenges of more demanding literary content in the new GCSEs, some school are developing a KS3 curriculum that draws heavily on heritage texts not traditionally taught to younger students and which may not be the most appropriate ones to use at such a young age.

There is certainly value in looking at canonical texts in these years, but when done to the exclusion of other elements of English study, it could lead to a curriculum that does not reflect the diverse make-up of most contemporary schools and that risks alienating young people.

Ignoring age-specific learning
Many schools are requiring students from the start of Y7 to demonstrate their knowledge primarily through writing essays. Learning to write critically from a young age has its place, but younger students are much more likely to remain engaged with the subject if given the freedom to show a high degree of creativity and playfulness in their responses. Research shows how closely cognitive and oral development are linked, so a curriculum that is too heavily based on formal written outcomes (tempting with the downgrading of spoken language at GCSE) risks shooting itself in the foot.

Awarding bodies setting the agenda
Awarding bodies are beginning to market resources and CPD for KS3, promoting work that links into their particular GCSE offers. The temptation for schools to buy into these is understandable, and perhaps a rich curriculum will be on offer, but there is also a strong potential risk attached to creating a five-year curriculum based only on the requirements of final exams.

What can be done?
There is nothing surprising about the emergence of these developments. Pressure on schools to perform at all costs means that they exist in a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ culture. Things can be done, though, to mitigate some of the negative pressures on English as a subject. And they don’t require further changes to the National Curriculum or to GCSEs. Here are a few suggestions:

• Head teachers to take a bold, ethical stance to create a culture in schools where high expectations equate to achievement through a rich and diverse curriculum, rather than through one narrowly focused on examination outcomes.
• English teachers to create a curriculum at KS3 that fully and imaginatively prepares students for GCSEs without simply reproducing GCSE style learning too soon.
• Inspections to look unfavourably on excessive testing at KS3.
• A system of local accountability to be re-established across all schools.

It is perfectly possible to construct an academically rigorous and engaging curriculum from current NC and GCSE requirements. English teachers are chomping at the bit to do just that. But many will be thwarted if the potential unintended consequences of the latest raft of educational reforms take hold. Like everyone else in education, at the English and Media Centre we want students to achieve and believe that schools should be accountable for that achievement. Let’s do all we can to make sure this happens within a system that encourages a rich and expansive curriculum rather than a narrow and constricted one.

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2 thoughts on “English and the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. I echo your concerns about the potential for this wonderful opportunity we have to reclaim our curriculum to be lost in the anxiety to ensure our students achieve the required results in their GCSE examinations.

    At our school we’ve decided to take a bold, ethical position and, in collaboration with our students and their families, have devised our own curriculum for Key Stage 3 that provides the students with a broad choice of texts, teachers and lines of inquiry. To accompany this we’ve also designed a comprehensive standards-based assessment programme (based around digital badges) to provide both the precision and flexibility that our learning programme needs.

    I’ve written about our choice-based KS3 Curriculum on by blog and our whole department publishes our learning programmes on our department site.

    We’d welcome people’s input into this, and our assessment programme too. We think we can provide a rich and varied programme of learning that will also lead to excellent results in GCSE – and the early signs are good; but we’d love to know what others make of it.

    Chris Waugh
    The London Nautical School

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