The author of a powerful new novel set in a comprehensive school explains why A-level results convey little about a pupil's education
‘Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared,’ declared the Reverend Charles Colton almost two centuries ago, ‘for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.’ Today’s GCSE and A level candidates would do well to bear the clergyman’s bon mot in mind as they receive their results. For contrary to the impression sometimes given in the annual dumbing-down debate, the central reality of modern British education is not the intellectual inadequacy of candidates, for which no credible evidence has been produced, but the often mind-numbing stupidity of the educational establishment, for which the evidence is clear and overwhelming.
In fact, to anyone familiar with what candidates are subjected to as they are prodded and poked through today’s education ‘system’, talk of falling standards and grade inflation, however plausible as a matter of plain arithmetic, inevitably misses the point. For over the last couple of decades a revolution has taken place in the character of public exams, especially of A levels; and since what is tested now is fundamentally different from what was tested twenty years ago, any comparison of grades over that period is bound to be meaningless.
If it is hard for those of us who are not teachers or examiners to keep up with the changes, it’s perhaps just as difficult for the people intimately involved to grasp the cumulative effect of the policies they are required to implement year by year, let alone to make their concerns heard above the chorus of official blandishments. Reports are periodically dispatched from the front line, most recently The Corruption of the Curriculum, published by the think tank Civitas; and occasionally an examiner or headteacher who no longer fears for his or her job will blow the whistle. But the great majority keep their heads down, waiting for retirement, and nothing can prepare the uninitiated adult for the sheer crassness of what our young people are routinely forced to endure.
A nephew of mine sat his English A level this summer. Ed has been passionate about literature since he was little, and I knew he had been getting high marks in his recent work. So when he told me he was learning quotations and practicing essays for his paper on The Tempest, I felt reassured that, at least in one expensive London school, the English A level was still alive and well.
Things started to become clearer, however, when Ed showed me his notes. None of the quotations was from Shakespeare; all without exception were taken from the works of the ‘theorists’ whose writings on colonialism formed the matrix through which Ed and his fellow candidates were required to filter their responses. Not Prospero or Caliban, in other words, but Franz Fanon, Edward Said and Jean Aitchison, an expert (appropriately enough) on ‘language murder’.
It took a little time for the implications of this to sink in. The biggest divergence from the traditional A level, was that originality was neither encouraged any longer, nor even tolerated: Ed’s own responses, however penetrating or well-argued, were largely irrelevant to this exam, whose apparent purpose was to pre-empt and control the pupils’ experiences of the play, channelling them into a narrow band of acceptable ‘readings’. In fact, the more sensitively and deeply one engaged with The Tempest, the harder it was going to be to get a decent grade.
Of course this was not Ed’s only English paper; he had plenty of opportunity to develop other ‘responses’ to works of literature. His papers on Chaucer and Webster, for example, required him to impose a feminist reading on the Merchant’s Tale and The Duchess of Malfi, while post-colonialism was covered by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Brian Friel’s Translations. As it happened, Friel’s play – which deals explicitly with language and colonisation – brought Ed some relief since, unlike the narrow polemics of the ‘theorists’, it is a genuine work of art, concerned with universal human values, including the possibility of reconciliation, and is, as Ed put it, ‘a lot more open-minded than this course.’
It would be comforting to believe that Ed’s experiences were unusual, but there is no reason to think this. His exam board, Edexcel, is one of the most popular, and though his English teachers might have chosen different papers, the deeper point is that Edexcel’s subordination of literature to ‘theory’ fully reflects the founding principles of the National Curriculum in English. As the English Working Group, chaired by Brian Cox, explained back in 1989: ‘The desire for a national culture is seen [by some academics] as damagingly conservative, often ‘racist’ and almost invariably unsympathetic to the rights of women… In England the desire for an ‘English’ tradition is said to hide a deep fear of our present multi-cultural society.’ For this reason, Cox was anxious that all teachers should be aware of ‘the ideological assumptions of their approach’, ‘for this is one way to overcome dogmatism.’
If Cox really hoped that the new English curriculum would ‘overcome dogmatism’, he must be a disappointed man. For while, in the words of Michele Ledda, one of the author’s of the Civitas report, ‘A British pupil can go through the entire school system and get the top marks in English and English Literature without knowing that Spenser, Milton or Pope ever existed’, the one thing nobody can avoid in today’s exam system, is the dogmatism of ‘theory’. An examining board which was really concerned about this problem, would surely have separated the two elements in Ed’s papers. Those who wished it, would then have been free to study English literature, spared, so far as possible, the sterile dogma of ‘post-modern’ ideologues; while those who wanted to study the works of Franz Fanon and the New Left could do so, too – presumably as part of a course on Western political thought – subjecting their ideas to analytical scrutiny, rather than treating them as a set of unexamined premises.
The latter paper would also give pupils an opportunity to ‘deconstruct’ the curriculum and exam system they are forced to endure, and (in the words of some recent GCSE geography guidelines) ‘to … become aware of the power relations implicit in any situation and the conflicts and inequalities which may arise.’
What ‘inequalities’, for example, ‘may arise’ from the AQA Anthology for GCSE English, in which the entire development of English poetry from medieval times until 1914 is represented by 16 poems – apparently chosen without reference to chronology or influence – while three times as many modern poems are included, all of them post-1950, of which three quarters come from four contemporary British poets, such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage? What ‘conflicts’ can be anticipated from a history curriculum in which candidates in many schools spend years studying Hitler’s rise to power, or the impact of the Second World War on British women, without any attempt to place these subjects in a meaningful context? Or from an approach to geography in which pupils are required to parrot the opinions of the examining board on such topical issues as global warming or recycling, without being given the opportunity to examine, let alone to master, the scientific data or techniques which make these concerns comprehensible?
The answer is that to those, like Ed, who still believe in their hearts that education can be a transformative force in their lives, it must often seem that the whole bureaucratic might of today’s ‘system’ is devoted to blocking off every avenue of intellectual and imaginative development. I was confidently assured by the head of history at a well-known private school, that it would do a bright and ambitious candidate no harm to spend another two years on Stalin, Hitler and the miners’ strike at A level, when he had already studied these subjects ad nauseam at GCSE. All that mattered, the teacher insisted, were the ‘skills’ common to the study of all periods and (in the words of Lord Dearing in his official report on teaching history) ‘independent of the body of knowledge taught.’ This reductio ad absurdum is now the basis of the entire National Curriculum in history.
Some of its defenders genuinely seem to believe that there is something radical or progressive about the present system. But it is worth stressing how wrong this is. The radical tradition in British politics, as on the continent, was overwhelmingly committed to education as a powerful means of personal empowerment and social improvement, and this attitude persisted well into the sixties. The motivation for replacing grammar schools with comprehensives was not to water down what was taught at the grammars, but on the contrary to ensure, in Hugh Gaitskell’s phrase, ‘a grammar school education for all.’
Even among revolutionaries, similar views prevailed and, despite a positively post-modern penchant for indoctrination, the Soviet Communist Party accepted the centrality of high culture within the school curriculum. While some Bolsheviks sought to replace ‘bourgeois culture’ with a new ‘Prolecult’, Lenin himself defended the importance of pupils studying ‘the material that was bequeathed to us by the old society.’ And when, thirty years earlier and from a wholly different perspective, Cardinal Newman had spoken of education as giving rise to ‘an acquired illumination… a habit, a personal possession, an inward endowment’, and of ‘a Knowledge’ or culture which was an end in itself, there was, for once, nothing controversial in his words.
Seen in any kind of historical perspective, the distinctive feature of the present situation is that this consensus no longer exists, and that a profoundly anti-progressive hostility to learning has become widely institutionalised instead. Some schools go to extraordinary lengths to suppress the instinct for knowledge. Frankie — a pupil in a large inner-city comprehensive — told me the following story. His school has the sort of discipline and truancy problems familiar enough to many British schools, but in one respect the place is remarkably well organized: every book in the library is colour-coded according to the age of the children who are permitted to read it, and nobody is allowed to take out any book of the ‘wrong’ colour. So it happened that the school authorities, grappling with the daunting problems of managing a big inner-city comprehensive, took the time and trouble to track down and punish Frankie for taking out of the library a book on how the mind works, which they considered him too young to read.
Perhaps fiction is the best way to challenge the hypocrisies and philistinism of our times. After all, the dehumanising effects of modernity has been a central preoccupation of literature since the Romantic period. Whether immiserated by urbanisation and the factory system in Dickens and Victor Hugo, or crushed by the state bureaucracy in the works of Gogol and Kafka, the modern hero struggles to break free from everything that is inhuman and reductive.
The hero of my novel is engaged in the same struggle as Frankie is in real life: he has to make sense of the world despite the best efforts of the authorities to belittle, confuse and isolate his experiences. And if he is going to search for meaning and true education, he knows he will have to do so outside the system, for the system is interested only in measurable results. Gradually he comes to realise that, in treating the young like this, our society is committing an injustice against the human spirit which is indefensible on anyone’s terms. ‘To speak a language,’ Franz Fanon wrote, ‘is to take on a world, a culture.’ And to be deprived of language – the language of the wider world, and of the past with all its tragedies, sufferings and achievements – is to be cut off from the means of entering that world, or even discovering that it exists.