‘Well read is well bred’ – but Telegraph overcooks the books (again)

The Telegraph cooks the books again and Headmaster over-eggs the pudding.

Cookery books
Nourishing the soul or the body?

An education that does not provide the tools and the hunger to read beyond the narrow confines of a subject is, in the wider sense, no education at all.

John Newton, Headmaster of the independent (yet also public) Taunton School, fears that students’ literary diet is as bad as the convenience foods too many of them eat. Writing in The Telegraph this week, he adds that ‘current students are no longer inclined to read tougher texts; they are encouraged to read what takes their fancy rather than what nourishes the soul’. The sub-editor seems taken by this culinary metaphor, for the article is illustrated by a photograph of old cookery books. The same books in fact, including (the no longer very) Modern Cookery that illustrated the report, back in March, of Michael Gove’s 50-book challenge to students – and noted here at the time as a rather odd choice of image. Still, who are we to argue with the illustrious ones of the Telegraph and the noble Doctor Newton (no mere ‘Headteacher’ he)? So I’ve used the same image too – I’m sure they won’t mind, it keeps costs down for everyone.

It does nonetheless strike me that the Head is over-egging the pudding when he goes on to write:

The arts have always been an area where the mind should run free within proper limits. Now candidates work like automata. We are seeing the persecution of the independent learner; the reader who imbibes a range of classic texts simply because they are beautiful in themselves is a rare species.

Ah, the pursuit of beauty! How exotic – but, of course, only ‘within proper limits’. Who (even in North Korea) could disagree with that? Especially when we read his approving comments on the International Baccalaureate and the Pre-U, very largely taken by independent schools, where (of course) students ‘enjoy an education which leads to a fulfilled appreciation of what great minds have produced’. No doubt Michael Gove will soon share with us his own list of the works by great minds that all students should read. Except, of course, when they are roaming free, reading round the subject and seeking out fresh culinary delights in Modern Cookery.

(The alert reader will have noticed that I have eschewed the hyphen in ‘overcook’ but used it in ‘over-egg’. Pussyfooting again….)

Pedants’ revolt aims to protect English from spell of txt spk

New GCSE, old language arguments

Samuel Johnson
Dr Johnson couldn't fix it either: picture from Wikimedia Commons

Hot on the heels of the announcement of the abolition of the QCDA comes publicity for a trendy new GCSE English course that allows the papers to link President Obama with, according to taste, Eddie Izzard (and Jonathan Ross) or Ronnie Corbett (and Ross again). Well done, OCR; as you say, it’s about image (and the students might benefit too):

This is an invaluable opportunity to give learners more control over their self-image and thus their lives. They’ll become more conscious of which registers are more appropriate in which scenarios, making them more likely to succeed when it comes to influencing and negotiating in everyday life, their education and the world of work.

If QCDA won’t protect the country from such stuff, who will? Just in time, the Times announces that ‘an Academy of English is being formed by the Queen’s English Society, to protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation.’ ‘Made up of professionals, academics and self-confessed pedants,’ they’ve decided we need an equivalent to L’Académie Fran├žaise. Furthermore, ‘the academy is not shunning the modern world: it has a website‘. It includes, you’ll be pleased to know, a section on the ‘tragic failure of the British education system (and the teachers that it produces) to meet the needs of our children’. I am a little puzzled, though, that each web page bears a strangely capitalised and punctuated footer: ‘Website Design by “SCOTT”‘ and that Page One is near the bottom of the contents list. Never mind, it’s only ephemera, like text-speak….

Inevitably, the Times article headlines this ‘Pedants’ revolt’. Read it online while you can, before the paywall shuts us out – and the accompanying debate ‘Do we need an Academy of English?‘ between the chairman of the Queen’s English Society and the chairman of the Spelling Society, ‘which aims to promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform’. Enjoy the comments in the online discussion – and don’t stop to wonder why the Times didn’t ask anyone in education or from a university language department about this. That’s left to today’s Guardian, where John Mullan from University College London writes engagingly about the folly of preserving English in aspic. For those who want to learn about the realities of language teaching, there’s a research project on teaching English Grammar, for example, also from UCL – English teachers can find out more about it at the forthcoming NATE Conference.

Gove says ‘Go!’ and offers children their very own school

Go-go Gove springs into action: set up a school, never mind the curriculum!

It was a good job I took a screenshot of the Department for Education site a couple of days ago: Go-go Gove has now sprung into action and got YouTubed for the home page. He’s also found time to abolish another quango: the second this week (I think he must enjoy it). It looks as though he’s offering the charming children in front of him the chance to set up their very own academy. I’m sure they’re all very interested: there must be nothing they’d like better than to run a school. After all, they’ve been there for at least a couple of years so they must have got the hang of it by now (and they’d only cause trouble on the streets otherwise).

The energetic Mr Gove (doesn’t he seem bouncy, Tiggerish even?) was so pleased by his school visit that he dashed off a letter to QCDA to tell them to pack their bags – again. Poor things, QCDA have only just got used the D in their name and been sent to Coventry, now they’re being sent from Coventry to oblivion. Now that anyone, even children, can run their own schools, who needs boring things like a curriculum or qualifications? As the Guardian points out closure of the QCDA and of Becta, also announced this week, will mean 730 job losses in Coventry. Being sent to Coventry never did sound much like fun….

Every fool in Bakewell: Ruskin’s rant refuted

Ruskin (and food critic Matthew Fort) on the beauties of Derbyshire

John Ruskin - a self-portraitJohn’s Ruskin’s complaint at the desecration of the Derbyshire Dales featured in The Guardian on Saturday. ‘Every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton,’ Ruskin thundered. ‘Call me a fool,’ Matthew Fort wrote, ‘but I can see any number of good reasons to be in Bakewell…. How many towns the size of Bakewell, I wondered, could boast a Tiroler Stüberl, Austrian Coffee Shop & Sausage Importer?’ The answer, I suspect, lies in the large number of tourists who flock there – those same ‘Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’ whom Ruskin addressed, perhaps, and their womenfolk? Continue reading “Every fool in Bakewell: Ruskin’s rant refuted”

Bribes ain’t what they used to be

150 years of Cambridge examinations: no improvement in examiner remuneration

Cambridge Assessment has garnered useful publicity for its 150th anniversary by putting together an exhibition of quaint gems from the archives. This featured on Radio 4’s Learning Curve, including a letter from a Mr A Kershaw of Morecambe who, in 1910, offered the Secretary of the Syndicate, John Neville Keynes, (father of the economist) and his wife ‘a holiday in Paris’ if his daughter’s fail grade could be found to have been ‘a mistake’ (see page 24 of the online materials for the original). No such largesse in these mean-spirited times; the best I’ve had recently is the odd chuckle over ‘youthamisms’ in Shakespeare, where Claudius, in an act of ‘fartricide’, seized the ‘thrown’ from Old Hamlet.

Tragic marker?

As electronic marking becomes more widespread there have been some disturbing stories about its shortcomings.

Alongside the predictable photogenic female twins with 12 As on the front pages of the papers (and the predictable prediction of these stories) there’s been a new element in the media reports this results season. As electronic marking becomes more widespread there have been some disturbing stories about its shortcomings. Here are the links: decide for yourself whether these are the teething problems of a brave new world or the inevitable consequences of letting the technology mess up a perfectly good system. Or, of course, something else:

  • Tragic marker: Alastair Harper has no experience of teaching. But that didn’t prevent him taking a job marking this year’s GCSEs. (Guardian, Friday August 10, 2007)
  • In capable hands? Minimal training, no experience of teaching … these are just two of the criticisms made today of Edexcel markers. Is this really how exams are being assessed, asks Felicity Carus in The Guardian, Tuesday August 21, 2007
  • Writing too much hits online marking: Edexcel asks students to keep answers concise and in black to suit its on-screen system. TES, 24 August 2007
  • Less is more for online marking: BBC report on same story, 24 August 2007.

Please add your own comments and links here to continue the argument.

Welcome for the new A Levels

Now that the exam boards in England and Wales have published their draft specifications it’s possible to begin making comparisons.

Now that the exam boards in England and Wales have published their draft specifications it’s possible to begin making comparisons. In alphabetical order, they are:

That only leaves CCEA in Northern Ireland, which is waiting till September.

Today’s Times Ed seems surprised that NATE’s John Hodgson has ‘taken the unusual step of welcoming as “very positive” changes which will require students to read more books and write creatively’. The journalist seems to be making out that NATE is a bunch of grumpy contrarians who hate it when students read books! No, Warwick, you were at the Conference – we love books, it’s the SATs we hate!

Of course there are concerns about the changes. The same TES item quotes a teacher who’ll ‘teach brutally to the exam’ – which sounds horrible! And the ‘creative’ aspect seems to worry some – though many see this (which is a QCA requirement) as stimulating. AQA, for example, define this as ‘personal / original interpretation or creative / transformational writing’, which seems to me to allow plenty of scope.

AQA’s new A Levels go live

AQA publishes new A Level specifications for 2008

In case you haven’t spotted this, the new AQA draft specifications for 2008 are now on the AQA site. There are also specimen question papers and mark schemes to give you an idea of what the new papers might look like. I’m probably biased: I think the reading lists for AQA Literature A look really interesting, both for the set texts and the coursework lists – the sort of reading that should benefit anyone thinking of studying English after A Levels as well as being an enjoyable and coherent course. Teachers can ask for approval for other texts, but they’ll need to fit into the theme chosen. Outside the ‘set’ texts, reading is likely to be more selective, perhaps by extracts and overview rather than the line-by-line approach used in the past.

But take a look for yourselves and post a comment here. AQA is running training sessions on these new course this term and next.

No news yet from Edexcel, it seems – they must be keeping their powder dry…

Re-examining the examination: the new A Levels

New AS and A Level English specifications trickle, leak or spill into the public domain

Interesting times lie ahead as the new AS and A Level specifications spill into the public domain. I learnt at NATE Conference at the weekend that OCR put its new specifications on their website on Friday.

I’ve had a quick look at the English Literature specs. The OCR summary has a rather disturbing sick rose lying on a book, not sure what to make of that other than something about the death of the author/text/canon/subject…. My impression is that the OCR A2 has a fairly heavy pre-1800 feel, though I may be misreading this, so take a look for yourself if you want.

The WJEC has also put its new course on the web – it has some apparent similarities to OCR, with much longer coursework for AS, at least, with, like OCR, a quite prescribed list of texts in some of the units, and a pre-1800 bias to the A2 course. But again, see for yourself.

I understood from the AQA representative on Saturday that AQA‘s offerings would be up today, Tuesday, though at present (10.00pm), all the English specifications are still ‘coming soon’. Media and sociology are already there!