Liven up literacy
Literacy poses a different set of conundrums at secondary. Exams, revision, ever-decreasing budgets – Caroline Spalding reveals the big issues she’s focusing on in the new academic year
To motivate students, you need to make literacy inescapable for them
The biggest issue for secondary school English teachers in the year ahead? Getting unmotivated students to be, well, motivated. Motivation is an age-old problem, of course, but the need to tackle it has become even more acute due to the shift in how secondary English pupils are now assessed.
Like many English teachers, I broadly welcomed the move to grades being based 100 per cent on exam performance. In our faculty, I can honestly say – hand on heart – that controlled assessment rules were administered to the letter of the law.
As a consequence, I never could shift the feeling that, by taking what one local authority advisor described as “the moral high ground”, we were unfairly disadvantaging our students when their numbers were plugged into the big exam board computer in the sky alongside centres whose practices were not so pious.
Similarly, curriculum time spent repeating controlled assessment tasks that a student had underachieved on first time around never felt like the best way to spend the precious months of Year 11. If you can repeat an assessment, why take the first one seriously?
Added to this, the supreme marking and moderation burden of controlled assessment never failed to rankle. For one year group alone, and including only the final assessments, there were 1,500 pieces of work to mark and moderate and 2,100 cover sheets to be completed – not including speaking and listening. I fail to see how, in any school, this could not but detract from the attention given to other year groups.
The removal of controlled assessment has therefore let me and my colleagues teach better. The freedom of the new GCSE courses has enabled us to use assessment as it was always meant to be used – to inform teaching and learning – and not as a series of points to be banked prior to the final exams.
However, this change has also removed the metaphorical stabilisers. The final examinations are now high-stakes; students can no longer blag a half-decent grade by rifling through their dog-eared copy of Of Mice and Men, pre-populating a writing frame, or copying from a 500-word notes page.
Closed-book exams expose a student’s true understanding; the challenge of responding to unseen literary texts rewards the consistently hardworking and not the crammers – a fact that not all of our students have realised yet.
To be clear, my school is no different from others. We have rafts of hardworking students who attend weekly revision sessions, worry themselves silly about achieving the new grades 7 and above, and have annotated copies of their GCSE English literature texts that would put university students to shame.
But, just as in other schools, we have some students who – for a whole host of reasons – don’t yet place their educational achievement at the centre of their teenage worlds.
This year, we’ve had a particularly tough job motivating boys to revise. For most, this is not due to dislike of the subject (just ask Jack in my Year 10 class, who will openly opine about his love of the AQA poetry anthology); rather, being a teenager is just too damn exciting and the pressures of adulthood are too much of an abstract concept to most.
Add to this the challenges created by an area of social deprivation and the mountain of study required to succeed in these new examinations and it can all seem for many like an unconquerable challenge.
It will be interesting to see the impact of these courses on the achievement gap and whether – despite the government’s fixation on social mobility – the fissure in national attainment figures opens further still.
How can I try and prevent that? As with literacy, it is vital that issues related to attitude to learning do not fall solely on the shoulders of English teachers. Whole school
culture is the only real way student effort and aspiration will shift.
The potential outward signs of a school that fosters positive attitudes to learning might well be the abolition of holiday and after-school revision sessions, instead providing supervised study rooms throughout the year, and a move away from traditional homework and towards a greater expectation of independent study supported by low-stakes quizzing back in class.
But outside of the protection provided by school walls, the challenges our students face do not look set on easing any time soon. With rising tuition fees, austerity set to continue, and a looming mental health crisis there are not going to be quick fixes for many of our young people when it comes to ensuring that their futures are all that they can truly be.
Caroline Spalding is an English teacher. She tweets @Mrsspalding