National 5 English – Turning an Optimist into a Pessimist

Posted: March 5, 2013 in CfE, Intermediate, National 5
Tags: , , ,

So the SQA have finally seen fit to let us see what the exam papers look like for courses that pupils will be starting in June (and which, by extension, they should be being prepared for in the work they are doing this year). As an English teacher I was particularly eager to get my hands on this material to see if there was anything in it to mitigate my complete disdain for the single biggest proposed change – the imposition a set text list for Scottish literature and the requirement that pupils answer a question on this area.

What, then, did I find when I opened the appropriate section of the SQA’s website? Well I found three things, and feel I should explain each individually.

Firstly – and and I would expect least controversially – there is the ‘Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaulation’ – or, in simple terms, Close Reading – paper. Realistically there isn’t much change here at the business end of the paper, with the exception of the fact that there are no more question codes to guide pupils. The only real issue I have with this paper is that the marking scheme is, like the title of the paper, needlessly complex, but this shouldn’t have too much of an impact and is probably just designed to convince us that someone has been working really hard on our behalf.

The next thing I opened was the ‘Critical Reading’ paper, which is a combination of a critical essay section and the new Scottish texts questions. On the face of it there should be no problem with the critical essays as – theoretically – nothing has changed in this area, and we can continue to exercise complete freedom in selecting texts for this section of the paper. While this is, is simple terms, true, the example questions provided in this specimen paper are concerning because they are so open, and there are two problems here: for some pupils (probably the most able) the questions do not look especially taxing, making the paper yet another missed opportunity; for certain other pupils (this time the least able) the openness of the questions will be the very thing that will cause them problems.

Unfortunately, these issues pale into insignificance when considered alongside potential problems caused by the ‘Scottish text questions’. Leaving aside the list itself (more on that next) I am extremely concerned about the implications of the way in which the analysis questions have been structured, specifically in the area of poetry. In the sample paper the final poetry question is for eight marks, and requires that pupils compare the example text (a Burns poem not in the set text list) to other Burns works that have been studied. This, in essence, is the format of an Advanced Higher question – it will be too difficult for many students and for the others a significant amount of coaching will be necessary. This in itself may cause problems, but there is a more serious consequence of this question structure – in order to properly prepare students for this, those electing to study poetry from the set text list must study all five of the poems for any given author. To put this into perspective I presently teach between three and five poems a year to my Intermediate 2 class in order to properly prepare them for the critical essay question on poetry – given that pupils will surely not be able to use the same texts for both sections of the paper this means one of two things: either pupils must study at least eight poems in a single academic year (as well as prose and drama texts), or poetry is to be avoided for this section of the paper (which would be a terrible shame).

Finally, and with (by this stage) a great deal of reluctance, I had a look at the set Scottish text list. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I have been 100% opposed to this since the first time I heard about it because I believe that it is a fundamentally dangerous idea which runs contrary to the stated aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – it is simply ludicrous to spend so much time and energy talking up the professional freedom of teachers whilst imposing a narrow list of options from which they may not deviate. Unsurprisingly, the actual publication of the finalised list has done nothing to change my mind; even if I were to accept for a brief moment that a set list of texts is appropriate (which I of course do not) the chosen texts – especially the drama choices – are for the most part narrow, limited and dated. I see no prospect of this change improving the way in which pupils engage with Scottish literature, and actually expect it to do some serious damage, but this is what happens when politicians (and, while we’re at it, authors) are allowed to get involved in decisions which should always be made by teachers, namely what they teach their pupils and how they teach it.

It is also worth noting that the SQA felt the need to defend themselves in the set-text document itself, pointing out that their decisions “took account of the extensive feedback received” and focus on the “suitability of texts for assessment purposes.” I don’t imagine that my current S3 class would have any problem detecting the desperately defensive tone here.

Probably the worst part about this whole experience, however, is that I went through the new documents with a superb teacher who retired 2 years ago (she happened to be back in the school for a day). For ten minutes we flicked through page after page and almost without exception she pointed out that what was being proposed was, in truth, just a rehash of the assessment methods used years ago. My PT (himself about to retire) has now confirmed that there is nothing that is genuinely new or innovative in these specimen documents, further cementing the impression that the whole process has been a missed opportunity.

Why, though, does all of this matter so much? The thing is this: whilst the Curriculum for Excellence documents (such as the infamous ‘shiny green folder’) are overflowing with noble language, we are simply deluding ourselves if we believe for a second that the most important aspect of high school will not continue to be seen as what the pupils leave with rather than what they actually gain. Consequently, it is ludicrous to imagine that a student’s relative success in high school education will be measured in capacities rather than qualifications, and it is therefore absolutely crucial that we get the qualifications themselves right. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t see how the National 5 will really benefit pupils. Bear in mind that I say this with genuine regret – I still remember being dragged through Standard Grade at school, recognising even then that it was a terrible course that needed replaced, and was initially really excited by the prospect of a replacement modelled on the Intermediate courses which might allow us to vastly improve the experiences of our pupils; unfortunately, the National 5 Specimen Paper has robbed me of all of that early enthusiasm.

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