All change: new KS5 specifications

I’ve never been entirely at ease teaching A-level. I’ve often joked I won’t consider myself a “real” teacher until I’ve taught Othello, and to some extent this is due to my own experience of English at KS5, which was, in a word, transformative. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever taught a year 12 or 13 class in that transformative manner, and this is partly (I think) down to the curriculum on offer.

I’ve taught Gatsby, but only in the tight confines of a coursework unit; I’ve taught Much Ado About Nothing and Waiting for Godot through the restrictive lens of comedy; I’ve taught Macbeth, Doctor Faustus and Frankenstein, mainly as a vehicle for understanding “the Gothic.” I don’t feel I’ve ever just taught a text.

For me, this is what English in the sixth form needs to be about: exploring a number of excellent texts in more depth than you ever thought possible. The issues I’ve had with the two specifications I have taught, WJEC and AQA Literature B, is that they want the focus to be ever narrower (the latter significantly more so that the former).

So it was with these issues to the forefront of my mind that I delved through the new KS5 specifications, looking for a bit of breadth.

Being part of a sixth form consortium, though, I was somewhat limited in the choices I would make. The consortium had taken the decision to enter 100% of students at the end of year 12 for the A/S qualification, meaning that any specification I chose had to be deeply co-teachable. Although every exam board claims its spec is co-teachable, in reality the difference in papers at A/S and A2 reveals this as a fallacy. If you need to re-teach the whole of year 12 to different assessment objectives or exam layout in year 13, you could be seriously disadvantaging those students.

(An aside: in my ideal world of never, we teach the A-level over two years, spending the first half of year 12 reading widely texts which are nowhere near the specification, just because; because it’s edifying to read a lot, and know different things about different texts, and to read without being relentlessly tested – but I digress.)

Aside from co-teachability, I wanted a spec which contained texts which I knew I could teach myself or oversee others teaching, but, more importantly, texts which had the potential to change students’ perceptions of literature and English and language and life, love, the world.

I’m excited about the two year overview. I’ve chosen AQA Literature A, and the only irritation is the requirement to study a post-2000 text. The simplicity of the specification is its real selling point; the exams are sensible and allow for wide reading and focus on the key issues and themes in the texts. Plus, it allows me to finally become a real English teacher – by teaching Othello, at last.

Year 12: Love Through the Ages

Studying:

Othello: greatest Shakespeare play of all time (I acknowledge my own bias here)

The Great Gatsby: because if you don’t read about true, painful love when you’re seventeen, it will never feel as visceral in later years

Wuthering Heights: see above. (Also, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”)

Poetry pre-1900: as I find the poems slightly more beautiful and therefore teachable than post-1900.

Year 13: Texts in Shared Contexts

I’ve gone for 1945 to the present day, as I felt this would open itself to more varied readings than those in the immediate aftermath of WWI.

Studying:

A Streetcar Named Desire: the production in the Young Vic last year is without doubt the most incredible piece of theatre I have ever seen, and I’m hopeful there is a way to bring the year 13s to see a screening of it. Also, it’s a great play and one through which so many great American themes can be elicited.

Revolutionary Road: I love the idea of teaching this. I’m concerned the students will find the central concepts hard to relate to, but hopeful that they will respond to the inner turmoil and flawed characters.

Duffy: Feminine Gospels: Because they have to study something post-2000, and you can’t go far wrong with a poet who draws so richly on literary history.

Coursework unit: This will be determined by students’ personal choices and guided by the teacher who takes this unit.

Above is what we will teach: what of the how? I’ll come on to that over the coming weeks.

Cambridge, Kings and Changing my Teaching

“I enjoyed the trip very much and it made me sure of wanting to study English at university and that Cambridge would be an amazing place to do this.”

Year 12 student

My year 12 are undeniably a fantastic class. High achieving on entry, they have exceeded expectations this year in terms of the quality of their coursework. I’m certainly not discounting the mountain of work they still need to do to ace their exam in May, but each and every one of them has astonishing potential. And it is becoming more and more apparent that some would like to take English further, for which I am forever grateful. Much of this is down to two incredible universities who have opened their doors to us.

Back in September, in the early heady days of my new post , I contacted what seemed like every London university, explaining I wanted to build links between our sixth formers and a “local” university. Our year 12 are the first in our school to take English Literature A-level, so the time seemed ripe for new beginnings. Many did not respond. Those who did often offered specific days, often entirely unrelated to the course my year 12s are studying, and often at inconvenient times – as a consortium sixth form, it’s almost impossible to take students out of their other lessons (as perhaps it should be, always).

Conversely, two universities have offered numerous opportunities, but have also been open to helping us out in our particular circumstance. They have listened to what our students need and engaged with us on our terms. I am hopeful of a lasting relationship with each.

cambridge river

And the lecturers. Their astonishing knowledge, charisma and humility, as well as humour, was thoughtfully matched to sixth form students’ interests and levels. I was reminded of the very best of what I experienced at University, and found myself in the lovely position of learning alongside my lovely children.

On our trip to Cambridge University on 20th March, we learned how to make a successful application, and what subjects would be useful to do at A-level when applying to do an English degree. Also, we were taught what it would be like to do English at Cambridge. Finally, we were given an English lecture at University level focused on the philosophical question of: “How soon is now?” We looked at several different examples in poems, in the novel “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf and in the play “That Time” by Samuel Beckett.

Year 12 student

The following Monday, an incredible and generous lecturer from King’s College London relieved me of my duties and came in to teach my year 12 double lesson. I had previously explained to her that the students had been doing coursework, and they were now moving onto the exam. Could she perhaps do a session on Gatsby and narrative?

No powerpoint, no card sorts, no drama; a lengthy handout and some bullet points on a piece of paper had the students entranced. The angle the lecturer took, her questioning and her planning made me feel these short hours had given my 21 students a massive advantage over anyone else taking the exam who was not in that session. Oh, to be such a teacher!

In the frantic movement of everyday life in school, it is hard to find the kind of peace and tranquility necessary to reflect and create. I know that if I slowed down my lessons would be more thoughtful; too often, these days, I cling to success criteria and exam specifications in order to ensure my students know what they “need” to know. This is not enough.

I am going to aim to bring in some University when I plan. To think beyond the rubric. Not just: what do my students need to know? But: what is the most intellectually interesting way we can explore this?

I’ve often maintained that we should all be always learning, but perhaps it is time for me to go back to school with English. It feels like it has been a long time since I have learned anything new about English, and I was reminded last week that the world of the academic moves, at times at least, in a surprisingly sprightly fashion. There are a raft of post-graduate and short course prospectuses piled up by the door, hastily ordered following my recent experiences, and perhaps one of these holds the key to a wiser teacher.

We can always improve, and it is foolish to imagine there could be such a thing as a zenith of teaching practice. These two weeks in particular I have come face to face with greatness, and I’m falling short. I need to know more, so I will read more; I need to do more and plan more and question more and become better at what I do so the children that learn with me can know more, and go further.

But in the meantime, if I can expose my students to these kinds of opportunities, and inspire them to aim for the best they can achieve, I can take some comfort at least.

cambridge logo

Coursework

Having spent the past 4 Saturdays in school working on coursework, you would think I’d want to spend my first Saturday “off” not thinking about it.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think I would get along with coursework. I began teaching as coursework ended; I’d been trained in Controlled Assessment and as far as I was concern, it was a great grade-getter. It also gave me several hours at the end of each term of catch-up marking during precious lesson time while the little chickens wrote for their lives, which in the early years of teaching was a vote-winner for me. Controlled Assessment was controlled; entirely in my power. They did it, handed it in at the end, I marked it; nothing went wrong, I didn’t have to chase anyone.

Indeed, my first year teaching coursework was last year with an AS group. I found myself threatening students that I would be submitting a draft version, or not marking a draft, because they had missed the various deadlines by so long. I found myself caving to my own threats as I recalled that their grades were my performance management; life lesson for them spared. As I spent so much time calling home and calling students and tracking them down, I was moved even more to appreciate the wonders of Controlled Assessment.

Moving to my next school, then, I was a little nervous to be told that we taught the iGCSE for English Language, which requires no Controlled Assessment, but instead three pieces of coursework, each totaling 500-800 words. Particularly picking up a year 11 class, I did not fancy my prospects for an easy life.

Yet I have grown, very quickly, to love coursework, and, in particular, to despair at its eradication from the English curriculum.

Coursework has at its heart re-drafting. Until this year, I had never taught that skill. It changed the way I taught almost immediately. The focus on dialogue marking had never seemed so relevant: we want students to learn how to improve and then be given the opportunity to do it! Unlike Controlled Assessment, where an errant C from an A-targeted student would lead to many hours of re-teaching, re-taking and re-testing, instead I could cover a page with questions (“how could you make this simile more interesting?” “can you think of a better word?” “CONNECTIVES?!?”) and supervise them as they made the small tweaks which would make all the difference.

In year 10, we were free to teach a rich and varied curriculum; assessment no longer punctuated the teaching or became the end; instead it was a short diversion – “Write the narrative of the Lady of Shalott” for Assignment 2, and then in a few more weeks we’ll start comparing that with Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, and so your knowledge of literature will blossom. (But of course, I will go on to kill your joy with an incredibly challenging piece of Literature Controlled Assessment which requires you to not only write well about one challenging text, but to also compare it with another challenging text in an interesting way, while situating both texts firmly in their (relevant) context. This is a task which half of you will grasp perfectly and the other half fail miserably, thus consigning your year 11 to long sojourns after school as I re-teach you a different question – but that’s another story.)

In year 11, we learned the texts for the Literature exam, and spent some time tweaking the three best pieces of coursework, marking and re-marking; never correcting, but always guiding. It felt holistic. It felt right. It felt like I could teach a child, rather than an assessment.

Then there were the tiny handful of children who had not achieved a C in their coursework. Their current marks often indicated several missing pieces. I decided I would give them four Saturday mornings as a small class to work on their coursework.

As soon as I met the children (though crucially, not all the children – getting some of these particular lovelies to turn up on a Saturday was no picnic) it became immediately apparent that all should have no cognitive trouble achieving at least a C. Many of them made the necessary changes in record time. It was what they did when they weren’t working which held them back.

These were students who had been held back by their own approach to learning; some became easily distracted and a few were prone to grumbling. Most were incredibly frustrated when I continued to demand more of them – more changes, more improvements. Their natural inclination was to give up when it felt hard.

We persevered, and encouraged, and praised, and rewarded these students. Looking through most of their folders last Saturday, I could not believe how far they had come, and with really very little guidance above what I gave my own students, most of whom were firmly in C territory and aiming higher. They were nudged in the right direction, kept on the straight and narrow, and produced some really great pieces of work. They also showed me that they were able to work in a focused and positive way for a sustained period of time.

Something I’ve always believed is that every student can at least achieve a C in English. I have yet to meet a student who disproves this for me. My caveat is as to how long it takes them. So, for a student who has only just come to the country and speaks limited English, maybe no C for you this time. But with unlimited time and unlimited resources, every student can at least make this benchmark.

What coursework gives us is less limited time. The harder to reach students, with poorer attendance and a history of poor behaviour in school, leading to missed lessons and exclusion, can be caught by coursework in a way they can’t by Controlled Assessment, or an exam. Success in coursework can also show these students what they are capable of, building their self-esteem and honing their writing skills. It is more like Austin’s butterfly than a high-stakes C-making factory.

My concern with a 100% exam system is that we lose students. There are students who are desperately at risk in our school system, and as children this risk is rarely of their own making. A system which allows students to bank nothing will undeniably lead to some bright spark missing out, and I fear that they will look all too familiar to me. Students need a win; they need to see where they are; they also need to see what they can achieve if they put in the time and the effort. I want to spend less time assessing students, not more. I want to spend more time helping them to make their work as perfect as they can, and I worry that a system which does not value or prioritise redrafting cannot do that. When schools’ reputations and funding are on the line, who doesn’t teach to the test? We have the possibility, though, of a test which is as non-intrusive as possible, allowing for creativity, for making mistakes and for lapses in judgement.

This does not just impact on our hardest to reach students, but also our high fliers, who may in the far-flung future turn up at university having never learned the skill of improvement, but only learned how to write the perfect essay in an hour, without a sense of how much more developed it can be with time, effort and research. My year 12 essays this year were a pleasure to mark; students had visited the library (or possibly Google Books) and found critical theory I’d never encountered; their pieces were scholarly and assured. That cannot happen under exam conditions; they must have room to discover and research for themselves by A-level.

The argument will be made that it is down to teachers to ensure these skills are still embedded, even while they are not tested. But there is always the looming thought that the best way I can serve my students is to get them the best possible marks. It shouldn’t be like this.

I loved my Saturdays with these students. I felt genuinely sad that our time together was coming to an end. Those days, watching students write pieces that they or I had never thought them capable of, and getting to know these wonderful young people in slightly more laid-back settings, made me remember why this truly can be the best job in the world.

The power of the theatre

An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.

Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.

Clearly, something is going wrong here.

This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.

The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.

Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.

Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.

Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.

I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.

And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.

As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.

The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.