Some thoughts about A level reform…

I have followed some of the reactions to the recently-announced proposals for A level reform at a bit of a distance, occasionally commenting but, more often than not, sitting back and assuming that others, apparently more forthright and confident than I, probably know better.

But, increasingly, I find myself at odds with what I’m reading. At odds, specifically, from a subject perspective. I don’t want to restrict social mobility, reduce students’ life chances or apply a reductively revisionist approach. As a teacher, that would surely be foolish. However, as an English teacher, I have never liked the AS level and Gove’s proposal seems, to me, to be good for my subject at least, if not for any others.

Let’s start with the hoop-jumping evil of the Assessment Objectives. I hate them. They are useful as possibilities but as a ‘be-all-and-end-all’ requirement, they reduce literary criticism to a series of box-ticking endeavours. I often read brilliant responses to literature: insightful, exploratory and incisive. If there’s no mention of context though, go to jail, go directly to jail and do not collect any of the marks available for that aspect of work which is, so often, a ‘bolt-on’. Now, I know that Gove’s plans won’t necessarily remove the AOs but my argument is this: if we are essentially testing the same things twice in English, once in Year -2 and once in Year 13, why bother? Why put raw, partially-developed students through a process after one year if we know that they will be better at it after two? If we think they’ll have it cracked during Year 12, what is the point of Year 13 other than to study a wider range of texts?

From my own A level English experience – late 1980s, in a Surrey sixth form college – I know that an AS level result would have restricted my university options. I was a terrible first year A level student: I worked hard but I just didn’t ‘get it’. Following my result of the college’s internal first year English exam my teacher took me to one side (not so far that the rest of the class couldn’t hear though), told me I was stupid and that my dreams of going to read for an English degree would never come true. Quite a special lady, my A level English teacher.

The point is this though: had that result been an AS result, she might have been right. I needed another period of study before I had my moment of epiphany: ‘Ah, so *that’s* how you write about literature’. I don’t think I truly got it until university – I can still picture that moment of revelation, discussing texts in the coffee shop with fellow undergraduates, but that’s another story.

What I think I’ve been trying to say here is that English, for me, is a subject that needs time to percolate, to practise and to perfect. Testing students after one year on the same AOs as will be tested at the end of year two (albeit in different combinations) seems unnecessarily brutal, a measure which suits those who already ‘have it’ or who learn to perform tricks quickly. For this English teacher, a two-year process seems fairer and more conducive to encouraging students to experiment, explore and, perhaps most importantly, to take that leap of faith which good literary criticism requires.  Why do they need to be ready to be tested on that at 17 when there’s every chance that they will be better at it one year later?

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