Term has started. The last opportunity for candidates to be examined for the old-style A levels will be in January - otherwise it's the new form of A level all the way. Now, it may be that I'm just a crabbit old bag these days, but, God, I just can't find any joy in 'teaching to the test' and particularly this test. Time was, a couple of geological epochs ago, that I taught books. I taught students about pertinent themes, explored structure and language, and hopefully conveyed the joy I feel when analysing a beautiful piece of literature. It was not unknown for my students to discover they actually liked their books and that they'd been guided to an enriched appreciation of said books. I was always keen on explaining the historical and literary context for the books because this was part of the enriching process. But the bottom line always was the text itself, and exam questions often took the form of a passage for close analysis: 'Here is a scene from 'Antony and Cleopatra': how does the language used convey the relationship between the two main characters? How would the audience react to them at this point in the play? Support your answer with close reference to the text.' I've seen all sorts of changes over the years: texts allowed in exams, texts allowed to be annotated, coursework options allowed, modular repeated sittings of exams. We teachers take a deep breath, adjust, soldier on.
The latest changes, though, drive me to despair. This is not English as I perceive it, nor is it English as I would like to teach it. We're losing sight of the texts: they're swamped in a morass of politically correct contextual analysis, where the key word 'synoptic' rears its head over and over, where texts have to be related to one another to such a degree that we can no longer see them as individual pieces of art, where the notion of 'different interpretations' is so dominant, that students are bewildered. I have always known, for goodness sake, that there is no 'right' way to read a text, that we all bring our cultural and gender-based selves to a reading and this will affect how a text strikes us - but now the joy of analysing a line or enjoying a plot is submerged in jargon-heavy, abstract generalisations which are fundamentally as empty as city councils with their talk of 'beaconicity' and 'outreach programmes.'
I have become Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, I suppose.
Here is a sample question from an old-form A level paper, on Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale': 'How important do you think the relationship between Perdita and Florizel is to the play as a whole?' You may argue this is simplistic, but you know where you are with a question like this and even though the wording is simple it does not preclude the bright student from bringing the deeper issues and themes of the play into their argument. How about this on 'Measure for Measure': ''In spite of the fact that men govern Vienna, it is the women who have the real power.' To what extent do you agree with this view of 'Measure for Measure'?' This is a straightforward, argument-based question, with the key phrase 'To what extent' signalling to the candidate where they should go with their structure.
The new A level has cut the six module structure to four. Two of these modules are coursework units, the choice of texts for which is left to the teacher. The boards are offloading responsibility onto teachers in a big way. Teachers feel obligated to choose texts which will provide the easiest route to getting a good grade. This means that texts and areas of literature which may be more challenging are by-passed. The proportion of coursework to exam is too large. Shakespeare, on OCR, doesn't feature till the A2 year.
Here's a sample A2 essay question, focussing on three texts for one question, shackled together by the rule of 'one text post-1990, one text poetry': 'Writers present us with a clear sense of values. These values are drawn into particularly sharp focus when a chief concern of their writing is emotion.' Comment on and analyse the connections and comparisons between at least two texts you have studied in the light of this assertion. In your response you must ensure that at least one text is a post-1990 text, as indicated by * in the list above. In your response you should demonstrate what it means to be considering texts as a modern reader, in a modern context and that other readers at other times may well have had other responses.'
Look at the length of the question! Look at the pomposity of it!
At AS, one sample coursework task, suggested the candidate write an pitch demonstrating how to re-tell King Henry IV for a 21st century audience. How about the 21st century audience making the effort to understand Henry IV within its own literary and cultural context? There are brilliant modern takes on Shakespeare and on Chaucer, we've endured modern twists on Jane Austen and Dr Jekyll: film and TV feast on the copyright-free past. Fine and good. But when it comes to exams, why should W. Shakespeare or G. Chaucer need to be subjected to an analysis which is more sociological than literary?
I really want to stress I'm not against contextual studies: it is important to know what the role of the church was in the fourteenth century, what the position of women was in Shakespeare's day, how Darwinism shook the foundations of Victorian complacency - this is all of interest and enhances reader understanding. But, for God's sake, exam boards, I'm begging you - cut the politically-correct obfuscating jargon, get the balance of text and context right, set questions which are clearly interpretable by an A level candidate, get back to basics, bring back the joy.
Rant over. For the moment