A Level English Literature – are standards declining?

A level English Literature was criticised last week in a report by Ofqual. According to widespread media reporting, noticeably on the BBC and in The Independent (the latter being quite misleading in my view), A level English Literature has suffered from declining standards. Examination questions, argued Ofqual, have become too predictable, almost formulaic, and there have been a number of ‘dumbed down’ books set, particularly by AQA.

Before we all jump on the usual media bandwagon of criticising teachers, examination boards and education in general, perhaps a few observations are in order.

1. The report covers the period 2005-2009. The specifications in question were part of what was known as Curriculum 2000. A level courses were changed so that all subjects became modular, with students typically completing half their examinations in Year 12.

At the time many English teachers complained about ways that courses were developing (or, more accurately, declining) and particularly the big cut in content since 2000. In many respects, Ofqual has a fair point: any student studying post 2000 had an impoverished experience of English Literature, with too much carved into bite size pieces and the pursuit of Assessment Objectives sometimes replacing genuine teaching. Too often, students of reasonable though not remarkable ability, could, through jumping through hoops, rather than genuinely reading or engaging themselves, achieve decent marks. AQA was by no means the guilty party here – Edexcel (commercially owned – it’s part of Pearson Publishing) particularly springs to mind.

Interestingly, entries in A level English Literature fell, particularly amongst boys. Students voted with their feet. Ironically, some examination boards (particularly AQA, I found at meetings) railed against this – but their hands were tied by QCA, the predecessor of Ofqual, which has largely the same staff. Pot calling the kettle black springs to mind.

No such criticisms of the current examination specifications have been made. Indeed, we have record numbers in Year 12 following a course which most emphatically does not break things down into bite size pieces.

2. AQA was specifically criticised by Ofqual for dropping Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Catch 22.  Ofqual argued that the replacement texts, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, lacked rigour.

The irony of this situation is unbearable – ten years ago, plenty of teachers argued that Captain Corellis Mandolin lacked challenge! Huckleberry Finn is a classic of American Literature and a surprisingly complex novel whether in its morally ambiguous conclusion or the numerous linguistic issues raised, most noticeably in the representation of the Negro slave, Jim. Forget Tom Sawyer or any film of Huck Finn you’ve seen: ask any student of American Literature.

As for Northern Lights, the issues are much more complex. Ofqual has some fair points, but there are other arguments which do hold some validity. Pullman is, of course, anti-religionist number one, and uncompromising in his criticism of Christianity so many would suspect me of not being a fan – I’m not. Rightly, however, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that’s why we need to read him – to engage with the issues he raises and Pullman’s gross misrepresentation of the Church. Students need to be taught to read critically – I’d hope that my students were reading with just as much critical insight and engagement, sifting through the various arguments, when studying North and South or Measure for Measure. Yet huge numbers of young people have gone through our system, absorbing Pullman’s ideas without critical thought (I’ve met plenty of teachers who haven’t either!). Further arguments for properly studying Pullman are that he actually draws significantly on the work of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and William Blake, whose complexity certainly cannot be questioned – if only the WI really knew what Jerusalem was actually about! Pullman’s novels are not simply children’s writing: when first released, different editions were published, targeting both the adult and the older children’s/ young teenage age groups, and any study of his work would inevitably raise the question of what we mean by children’s writing. Would we dismiss Gulliver’s Travels  as ‘mere’ children’s writing? Historically, it’s been simplified and abridged for children, removing Swift’s biting satire and arresting misanthropy.

Moreover, when it comes to the issue of ‘complexity’ and ‘rigour’, perhaps we might bear in mind that students in any school or college studying A level English Literature are of greatly varying abilities. Surely there should be some room for the teacher to differentiate, selecting more accessible works for a class where the average grade is a D?  Yet I am confident that any student taking English Literature whom I know is having a thoroughly challenging, demanding and rigorous course: Wuthering Heights, Matthew Arnold, E.M. Forster, Marvell and Donne are all ‘difficult’ authors, and very much at the heart of A level English Literature.

3. The report is full of tables recording how few scripts were actually reviewed in the writing of the report, bearing in mind the size of entry each year. It makes some fair recommendations, highlighting the ongoing problem of differences between examination boards, but it does not fully address the big issue which every English teacher knows exists: the variability of examination marking from year to year. Of course, most of the time examination marking is correct, but when it goes wrong, it can have a huge impact on a student’s future. Most teachers have seen it both ways: marks which were ridiculously low and talented students, often with a passionate and sensitive understanding of the subject, poorly rewarded, and average students awarded full marks. And it happens at all levels – whether at A level, GCSE or the now abolished Key Stage 3 tests (largely because of the inconsistent quality of marking). As an examiner in the past, I am reluctant to criticise the examination boards, but the current situation has placed an unbearable load of assessment on them. Schools bewail the huge increase in costs of examination entries and we in England (plus Wales and Northern Ireland – as ever, the Scots are one step ahead) have one of the most complex examination systems in the world.

What’s needed is a rethink of assessment in English Literature. The Cambridge Pre-U, with its focus on teaching rather than ‘jumping through hoops’, is promising, but perhaps we need to get even more radical and actually start hankering after ideals, rather than being driven by the popular press and its ‘back to basics’ type rants – as ever, the report is more measured than the somewhat sensationalist reporting. Teaching and assessment should go hand in hand, as any student on a PGCE course soon discovers, and universities recognise – as an undergraduate, it came as something of a shock to me that my lecturers would be writing my Finals! So perhaps teachers, properly trained and professionally accountable, moderated and verified, should be given additional responsibility for assessment, and their hours adjusted accordingly. Such a system works very well with coursework on all current English Literature courses, with teachers respected for their professional judgements. Let’s then abolish AS level examinations, which merely eat into teaching time, bore our already over-tested students and do not always provide reliable guidance about how students will perform at A2, particularly in Arts subjects. Yes, final examination performance must have an element in assessment – an outside judgement is always required in the interests of impartiality – but let’s cut it down and ensure that examiners have much more extensive training, sufficient time to complete the task and much more second marking.

What I am proposing is, of course, nothing new. The fact it’s been said since I was taking my own GCSEs (100% coursework in English Language and Literature, by the way) suggests that a long overdue examination overhaul is in order.  This does not apply to every subject – there are plenty in which a final examination is probably the fairest way of assessing students, particularly subjects which do not rest as much on the judgement of an individual – but the case for reform in disciplines such as English Literature is one with which the vast majority of English teachers agree, even if they don’t agree on the direction which this should take.

Are there signs of hope? Michael Gove has recently (though hastily) banned modules being taken early at GCSE – but it’s only the start – and we urgently need to rethink the current system.