English in Education: Current National Issues

Who are we? The Common English Forum represents all the major bodies with a professional interest in the teaching of English, from Primary level to Higher Education (a list of members is available on our Home page). We are committed to the furtherance of English as a subject and to fostering the highest standards in its teaching and learning.

What are our concerns? We believe that good English teaching is under threat for a number of reasons. The pace of change in education in recent years has been considerable and seems set to continue. Much teaching and learning is at present being driven chiefly by what can be assessed and is distorted by the pressures of accountability, rather than being shaped by what is educationally desirable for pupils.

At Primary level there is widespread concern among teachers that the phonics and grammar tests for 7 and 11 year-olds are inefficient and imprecise ways of assessing children’s literacy standards, to the extent of being positively harmful to our youngest children’s experiences of reading. The tests which 11 year olds are required to take continue to have a negative effect in the English curriculum, particularly in Year 6 where ‘teaching to the test’ inevitably takes place.

At Secondary level the recent reforms to GCSE examination introduced in the name of making both assessment and demand more rigorous are leading to an unforeseen and undesirable narrowing of the curriculum as early as KS3. As schools begin to ‘teach to the test’ as early as Year 9 or even before, there will be an impoverishment in pupils’ experience of both reading and writing. The study of ‘canonical’ texts is important, but its new prominence devalues other forms of literary and linguistic experience. Pupils will have much less time for ‘reading for pleasure’, and they will thereby be deprived of access to the range of high-quality writing which exists for children and young adults. The exclusion of media and multi-modal texts, and the reduced emphasis on speaking and listening threaten to deprive pupils of skills and knowledge which are vital in the contemporary world. The absence of any kind of coursework assessment at GCSE also restricts pupils’ opportunities for the independent work, personal research and extended writing, which are essential to undergraduate study and future employability.

At Advanced level, the decoupling of ‘A’ and ‘AS’ poses acute logistical problems for schools and colleges. Whilst Cambridge University has issued advice to schools advocating the retention of ‘AS’ for all, the new system is not designed to serve this purpose. The full ramifications of the current reforms have been so far inadequately understood.

In the training and recruitment of teachers, there is currently a shortage of graduates with a specialist qualification in English. Recently introduced arrangements surrounding the training of teachers are fundamentally incoherent, involving different routes, sometimes leading to different qualifications, and embodying different aims and different experiences. The application process is complex and confusing. The current situation needs rationalisation.

In short, initiatives have been introduced quickly. They have involved major upheavals and are now issuing in unforeseen consequences. We think that at this time there is need for policy-makers to develop a coherent overview of the position of English in schools and universities. Fresh policy for any new government needs to be based on a full awareness of all the issues involved either in the further implementation or in the halting of these reforms.

19 March 2015

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