My Year So Far or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love National 5 English

Posted: December 15, 2013 in CfE, Curricular development, National 5
Tags: , , ,

Introduction

June 2013 and a room full of fourteen and fifteen year olds find themselves on the front lines of a brave new world of assessment. Contrary to the experiences of their older siblings and friends, they would not be preparing themselves for a Standard Grade exam; instead, they would face a new foe: National 5.

Of course, the groundwork had been laid over the past twelve months, with the vast bulk of teaching and learning throughout this period designed to meet the requirements of the Broad General Education (BGE) whilst simultaneously preparing pupils for what was always going to be a – at least in English – an enormous step up from the expectations of the old, abandoned Standard Grades.

When I started my PGDE in 2010 I was very positive about the changes being pushed by Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE); while I have managed to hold on to most of this optimism in the intervening years, I think the vast majority of teachers reserved the bulk of their reservations for the point at which the open and expansive BGE metamorphosed into the high stakes, make-or-break courses which, like it or not, secondary schools will always be judged on.

In all honestly, there has been no shortage of criticism regarding the implementation of the new National Qualifications and, looked at entirely dispassionately, it would be very difficult to argue with the belief that both the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland (ES) have let down pupils, parents and teachers by failing to produce the right materials at the right times (more on this later).

What is indisputable, though, is that Nationals are here and that all teachers, regardless of their views of CfE overall, have a responsibility to make sure that they work for the pupils who sit in front of us every day and depend on us to provide them with the excellent education that they deserve.

This post examines my own learning journey (a phrase that I utterly detest) over the past few years and outlines how I have approached the development and delivery of the new National 5 English qualification. Of course as I write this my first national 5 cohort are still several months away from sitting the first run of final exams, and any final judgements about the success or failure of my approach will inevitably hinge on the results achieved by the pupils themselves; still, the conversations that I have had with dozens of colleagues over the past twelve months lead me to believe that some people might benefit from reading an honest account of the way in which I have attempted to implement the new qualification for the benefit of my students.

First Impressions

My initial response to the National 5 English course can be found in this blogpost.

Initial Planning

The early planning of my National 5 English course took place over a period of several months and essentially centred around two questions:

        What will stay the same?

It made sense, in my view, to look initially for the similarities between the new and old courses, rather than the differences, and looking back I firmly believe that this was the right thing to do. Intermediate 2 had been taught successfully for several years and was, in the opinion of many teachers, an excellent stepping stone between Standard Grade and Higher for lots of students over that time.

The range and speed of the changes brought in with CfE have led many people to claim – often correctly – that in our attempts to build a modern, forward-thinking education system we risk throwing the baby out with the bath-water, and it would be a tragedy to undo huge swathes of the good work that has been done in relation to the Intermediate courses when it could instead form the foundation of our progress over the next five to ten years.

Fortunately, there are a number of areas where little, if anything, will change in practical terms as we introduce the National 5: critical essays remain exactly the same; students will still submit a portfolio of writing containing one broadly discursive and one broadly creative piece of work; close reading papers – even if they do have a shiny new name – still test the same Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation skills.

As a consequence of this, my early thinking centred around deciding which of the texts that I had used successfully for Intermediate 2 – Norman MacCaig’s Visiting Hour, Seamus Heaney’s The Early Purges, Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets 1, Carol Ann Duffy’s War Photographer, Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian, Alex LaGuma’s Coffee for the Road Zoe Wicomb’s Neighbours and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls – could be retained for the new National 5 course that I would be designing. Initially, five of these texts found their way into my course plan (although in the end only three made the final cut, with another likely to reappear in the course planning for the new Higher).

        What will have to change?

Having developed what I believed to be a good sense of the areas of continuity between the old and new courses, it was time to face up to the things that would have to be amended or, perhaps, changed altogether in order to fully meet the requirements for National 5 English. At this stage I was forced to confront what has undoubtedly been the most controversial aspects of the new course: Scottish Set Texts.

Whilst I – and many others – initially believed that the inclusion of this feature in the exam would be based around a critical essay, it eventually became clear that what was being planned was in many ways closer to a textual analysis (only much easier). Like many others, my first instinct was to focus on either poetry (almost certainly MacCaig) or prose (probably Iain Crichton Smith) as it seemed logical to soften the blow of an entirely new assessment style with tried-and-tested teaching material (although in the end I changed my mind entirely and went for drama).

The other difference between National 5 and Intermediate is the inclusion of assessed units on Talking and Listening. My first response to this decision – which has not altered in any way – is that elements which do not count towards the final awards should not be included in course assessment structures; however, as I often say to my students, it’s not my game so it’s not my rules.

The assessment of Talk is, of course, nothing new for English teachers, but it was immediately clear that it could not simply be transplanted from Standard Grade to National 5 in the same form due to time constraints. Listening assessments are also not exactly ground-breaking, having appeared in previous versions of the Higher courses before being removed (one wonders how long they will survive this time).

Detailed Planning

Although my early planning started by examining those things that would remain the same, by May 2013 I had come to the conclusion that it might be best to start my full, detailed plans by dealing with those areas of the course that would require a shift in my approach from previous years.

I therefore started by deciding on how I would approach the Scottish Set Text section of the exam. There are, as you would expect, a range of approaches to this problem – most of the teachers that I am in contact with seem to have gone down the road of focusing on poetry, with some even deciding to do more than one genre (presumably as a belt-and-braces approach to the only real area of uncertainty in the course).

Whilst I can understand this decision – indeed, I came close to making the same one myself in the early stages – I decided to go for drama alone, specifically, ‘Bold Girls’. Why did I do this? Well, it became clear to me that in order to teach the full range of poetry or prose required for this section I would have to severely curtail the number of texts that pupils could be taught for the critical essay section of the exam, and this is not something that I was willing to do. I believe that, as a teacher, I have two major responsibilities when teaching examined courses at the senior level: firstly, I must exposed pupils to as wide a range of quality literature as I possibly can (something which a primary focus on the Scottish Set Text list cannot not achieve ); secondly, I must give them the best possible chance of achieving the highest possible grade in their examination (which, in my experience, means writing a critical essay on poetry in the exam itself).

With this decision made, then, I next had to decide which texts to teach and, crucially, why. In the end I decided to extend an idea implemented by my previous PT Alan Kelly – a themed approach to the course. Those who know me, or have been taught by me, will not be surprised to know that I settled on ‘Coping with Conflict’ as the theme for the course and, having made this decision, selected the following texts for critical study: ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Spiritual Damage’ by Fergal Keane and ‘The Man I Killed’ by Tim O’Brien (clearly ‘Bold Girls’ also fits into this theme – the other studied text, ‘Glasgow Sonnets 1’, was already being used before the decision to theme the course had been made).

My finalised plan (completed in June 2013) is available here, as are the teaching materials that I have developed (all of which are  stored on Google Docs).

Progress

As I write this (in December 2013, around half-way through the course and five weeks away from the prelim) I would tentatively suggest that, so far, the course is going well: the class have already covered both poems, ‘Spiritual Damage’ and ‘Bold Girls’; listening assessments have been (mostly) successfully completed; reading assessments were completed last week; critical essay skills are developing at an impressive rate; overall, whilst the pupils are finding the course challenging, they are more than rising to the challenge and I am hopeful – even optimistic – of seeing some very high results next summer and a large number of the class (maybe even all of them) going on to study for the new Higher next year.

Problems

Of course, as anyone with even half an eye on Scottish education should know, there have been serious problems with the implementation of the new qualifications – these issues can largely be considered in three categories: poor quality assessment materials; equally poor support materials from third parties; and a woeful lack of exemplification of standards.

Every single teacher I have spoken to – in every single subject – has been unhappy with the standard of the material produced by the SQA and Education Scotland, with particular ire being directed towards the unit assessment material provided for the new courses. Spelling, grammar and arithmetic mistakes are far too commonplace for comfort, but the most frustrating issue (for me anyway) has been with the format and style of the marking instructions, which are both vague and poorly organised (so much so that I spent an hour last week correcting and reformatting one in order to be able to use it effectively). While these may not seem like the most pressing of issues, there really is no excuse for such simple and avoidable problems, and, with teachers already under a great deal of pressure, it was the last thing we needed.

To compound this problem, many of the support materials provided by third party publishers (Hodder Gibson, Leckie & Leckie and Bright Red) really haven’t been of the sort of standard that I would have expected (although when you can essentially guarantee sales you probably don’t need to worry too much about what you are producing). Admittedly this issue has been compounded by the SQA’s utterly incomprehensible decision to release only one full specimen paper, leaving the publishers grasping at the same straws as the rest of us, but I’m afraid when you stamp ‘SQA Approved’ on the cover of a booklet this sort of argument doesn’t really cut it.

Finally, and most importantly, teachers in subjects like mine have had their hands tied by the lack of exemplification of standards, meaning that even now – half-way through the course – the SQA have not produced any material giving clear, official examples of pieces of work which would achieve particular grades (ie. critical essays that would be awarded an A, B or C). There really can be no defence for this because, even accepting that in the first year of a course actual pupil work may not be immediately available, the existing Understanding Standards site could surely have been easily adapted to provide the sort of information that teachers have been calling out for.

The most frustrating thing about these problems is that they were, I believe, entirely avoidable as each one could have been easily pre-empted.

Conclusions

The above issues notwithstanding, it would seem that the majority of those engaged in delivery of the National 5 English feel as if they are making good progress and I believe that this applies to my own class as well. I do not doubt that things will get better, and genuinely believe that the course itself is far better preparation for a Higher than the old Standard Grade.

If the problems with the course can be ironed out (SOON) then things should continue to go well, but I would urge the powers that be to learn lessons from National 5 implementation and adapt their approaches in time for next year (as I really don’t want to have to write much the same things about the New Higher).

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Comments
  1. Mr. McEnaney says:

    Thank you for the comment – I’m glad my observations are helpful 🙂

  2. vonniemc says:

    I found this post tremendously helpful in understanding one teacher’s ‘hated-word journey’ through N5s so far. The detail in terms of texts, your expectations and determination to give the very best quality of experience to the students while also giving them the best chance of a high award is laudable. I also loved the detail of the texts you’re using and why. I look forward to same on new Highers to enable me to ‘get under’ the rhetoric and posturing to the realities for a teacher actually teaching a class through the process. Thanks.

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