English is hand-writing set-text essays

Writing on set-texts is the very stuff of senior school English, so I understand that I’m stomping on hallowed turf here. Those of us who truly enjoyed English at school (and it’s important to remember that we are a pretty small minority) can often fondly remember the texts that we studied. The name of the book alone can unlock precious and significant memories: a beloved and influential teacher, a well-written essay, the sensation – so central to the pleasure of English at secondary school – that in being asked to read this book one was being inducted into the adult world, in a way that no other subject could really equal.

I have fond memories of this sort myself, and would be anxious to ensure that young people continue to have them. However, it seems to me that much of what is valuable in them could be preserved whilst at the same time ditching the ludicrous way in which essays on set texts have become so core to ‘English’ assessment.

Because, in addition to all those great memories I have of A-Level Measure for Measure, I can also remember feeling that the process of noting down the teacher’s explanation of the text, and then aiming to reproduce it in my own work, seemed a little ridiculous. I feared always that what I was about to be assessed on was my ability to faithfully reproduce the oral class presentation (albeit with some genuine contributions from us the students) in prose form. This, admittedly, is an exercise which requires and proves a number of useful skills, but I’m quite sure that literary capacity is not one of them.

Literary capacity is rooted in an understanding – which is initially at least pretty implicit – of history, philosophy and genre, and is expressed in the production of interpretations of literary texts. An interpretation is a text – typically written, though not necessarily so – which makes a case for what you believe is the significance of a text. Brutally put, when one does that using someone else’s ideas, one is not doing that.

Increasingly, schools are simply giving up on the pretence of originality that has hitherto accompanied this exercise. In a high performing school I recently worked in, students were simply set up with the resources to memorise their teacher’s writing on the text. This – the memorisation of teacher’s writing – was the core process of the English classroom, and it was extraordinary effective. I remember that the first year it was implemented in full the examiners protested in their report that some students across the region were suffering for simply reproducing pre-learned essays. But the very same examiners that year unwittingly awarded our students for doing just this: our results leaped up, and students who I knew for a fact were a long way from being effective writers were awarded marks well beyond their actual capacity. The examiners were smart enough to spot the memorised essay when produced by individual students, but were not up to detecting the clever approach to refitting memorised material devised by our teachers.

This kind of cynicism is depressing. It was, of course, all about results, which in turn were ultimately about enrolment numbers – a dynamic clearly driven by the market-based approach to school reform adopted by governments over the last few decades (and, as a case study, a clear riposte to the complaint that ‘neo-liberal’ is just a childish slur in contemporary education debate). But even if schools were not doing this sort of thing, the set text exam essay would be slowly throttling the subject. My old school was just formalising what has gone on in more rudimentary form for years: most English teachers could name someone – peers or students – who never actually read the book, but still came out with a reasonable score because they crammed on their teacher notes – or notes provided by a commercial publisher – on the night/week before the exam. The mere fact that exams on a ‘set text’ can be passed in this way shows that this approach to assessment is bankrupt, and has been so for a long time. 

What’s the alternative? Well, I think there are serious questions about the necessity of grading students’ handwritten texts in the first place. For the majority of purposes, graded assessments of students’ capacity to read are a serviceable proxy for their generally writing ability, and are generally a cheaper and less controversial process than exam-condition essays. As for the handwritten element, this just seems increasingly peverse – as does the rising anxiety that an increasing number of students have a ‘problem’ with handwriting.

In truth, it is surely the system which has a problem with handwriting – in that it continues to propose it as a worthwhile skill to assess. Even when I was at school, in the 1990s, handwritten tasks seemed to be a little old fashioned, and there was an assumption around even then that soon enough senior students would move away from them.  So why are we still doing it? What advantage does it possible serve to force students to write in longhand for hours on end in order to ‘prove’ that they can ‘write’? There are a good few grumpy old aesthetes around who insist on seeing something magically and uniquely humane in handwriting. Handwriting for these mystically elevated pen-people is a sort of sacred seal of authenticity, and the ability to do it well the ultimate in courtly consideration. This kind of eccentricity is acceptable, I suppose, regarding a hobby – like falconry, say –  but unfortunately far too many of these characters still seem to occupy important positions in the educational bureaucracy.

Assuming that at some point in the near future this issue will be addressed, and students finally enabled to type their exams, many voices will still no doubt insist on the need for a meaningful examination of writing. Even if these folk get their way, there is no reason why this writing has to be on texts read previously. In the past, fairly providing students with extensive amounts of reading to do in the exam would have been difficult and costly, but with contemporary printing technology – or even digital screens – this would be far less of an issue. In the end, literary capacity is as much about reading as it is writing, so the best assessment would be one in which a student spent an hour reading a text they were unlikely to have studied in any depth, and then another hour writing on it.

Some teachers will feel hostile to this suggestion, worrying that many students will struggle in such a task. Well, I suppose they would, and I imagine the quality of the responses overall would indeed drop: teenagers are unlikely to manage as well on their own as they do using their teachers’ ideas. But the responses would be theirs, and, crucially, the right students would be rewarded: not the students best at memorising quotes and comments the night or weeks before the exam (or, increasingly, those who have learnt their teacher’s writing effectively…), but students who have spent years reading broadly and deeply, and who have taken the time to think carefully about how and why literature in general may be interpreted.

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