Reflections on the Gove reforms from an English classroom

When the curriculum changes we always end up with a large amount of column inches at the time but there is all too little reflection on the actual implementation and impact down the line. Was the outrage justified? Have we reaped the benefits we were supposed to? Here are some quick reflections on two years of teaching under the new regime.

  1. The new academic rigor at KS2 is welcome at secondary, but shouldn’t be squandered.

I speak from a borough that has handled the KS2 SATs transition relatively well, so I realise there is a certain extent to which this won’t apply elsewhere, but as an English teacher it has been great to see Primary school students coming through who are really confident with their grammar. I’ve been doing a Year 6 summer school this last week and gone are the blank stares of half the class when you ask what an adjective is. Gone are the vague definitions. Hands shoot up to answer and you get a precise response from almost any student you ask, “An adjective is a word that describes a noun.” Ok I think- but what are the words that describe other types of words? “We have adverbs- those are used to describe verbs.” This isn’t just the one student in the class who is clued up on this stuff either, there is a real sense in which the vast majority of the class had a grasp on this.

This is all thanks to the hard work that is going on in Primary schools across the country- it is really important that it isn’t wasted by secondary school teachers at KS3. Over the summer they may experience a memory lapse- that doesn’t mean they didn’t learn it. It is important we honour the heavy lifting Year 6 teachers are doing by quickly recapping and building on those skills; grammar needs to empower students to try even more creative and confident writing at secondary. They’ve learnt the rules, now they can play with them.

2. American literature hasn’t died; the ’19th Century British canon’ is being revived mainly through Scrooge… 

Remember this fear? It is true that the extent of American literature that students are exposed to has decreased. However, in almost every school I visit, far from students being denied Steinbeck they simply learn this stuff in Year 9 or at some other point.

It is fair to say, however, that the balance has moved strongly towards teaching more 19th Century British texts to prepare students for the GCSEs; this hasn’t got the better of students. I have seen such a range of creative approaches to this- at KS3 teachers across schools I have visited/colleagues I’ve spoken to are feeling increasingly confident in making these texts engaging for students at KS3 by editing the text and focusing on the more dramatic story lines/character arcs. However, many are dropping Jekyll and Hyde/Jane Eyre etc and bunching towards A Christmas Carol at KS4. Is this the revival of great works of the canon that Gove was hoping for? I suspect not. It would be interesting to get some information on the balance of texts being taught across the country for exams to see if this is true more widely.  The greatest revival I have seen is in the use of A Muppets Christmas Carol in classrooms; not unwelcome in my view, but maybe not the policy intention.

If the Conservative Party really want a revival of these texts they need to think more carefully about how they are assessed; the fear of any extract popping up in the exam is drawing teachers away from the longer texts despite them feeling confident with teaching them in general, which is a shame.

3. Progress 8 is great, but we still game because of the competitive market in Sixth Form provision that relies on certain grades for students to get into their course choices.

The new value-added scoring system was meant to reward schools that focussed on progress for all, but sadly that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much in the classrooms, even if leaderships across the country are getting on board.

The students at the lower end of the ability range have traditionally been forgotten because they couldn’t get a C- this was terrible for their education but, sadly, the intense focus on the C/D borderline has still not died a death. I’ve been to conferences where people actually complain about how difficult gaming is (‘I just don’t know who to intervene with’) instead of rejoicing at the fact that we might focus on all students regardless of their impact on the published headline measures. Instead of coming to the conclusion that actually every student’s exam results might be of equal importance the profession seems to have decided that we should focus on the 4/5 borderline because of Sixth Forms and what they want for particular courses. This is one of the main reasons everyone was upset about the change to grade 4 as a ‘good’ pass- it meant we had all been triaging our students wrong; we should have been focussing on the 3/4 boundary, apparently.

4. Lethal combination of binary KS2 judgements, KS4 curriculum change and the inability to abandon gaming has hit the least able the hardest.

If you don’t cut the mustard at Primary school you are now labelled as ‘not at expected standard.’ Imagine that? It is so depressingly specific about your failures as a young person. The particularly nasty thing about it is that you could be a couple marks off ‘expected standard’ and you would still be labelled a Primary school failure. It doesn’t get any better for you when you go to secondary school either…

The increase in challenge, the removal of the foundation exams, the plethora of unseen texts, the requirement to memorise more of core texts because of the extract-based questions; these were all meant to ring the alarm bells and alert everyone to the needs of the least able but I still don’t see a whole scale reversal of old habits to focus the support there. The problem is that the profession has almost internalised the Government’s ideas as a result of the decades long target setting/accountability agenda. People don’t even think that finding a middle ground to focus on might be an issue anymore. Weirdly, a lot of English departments are responding with increased ability setting which has been shown time and time again to have little impact on overall results and a really negative impact on the least able.  Now these students are being pummelled by the new curriculum and exams, and still we aren’t seeing an investment in them to cope with it; the consequences for society could be very worrying indeed.


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