A novel approach

Planner or pantster? It’s a very important question, both for professional writers and for those learning the trade (which probably means anyone from about the age of 9 upwards: anyone, that is, who’s reached the point where mastery of the physical act of making marks on paper is taken for granted and the emphasis shifts to composition and effect.)

Novice writers are always exhorted to make a plan. Some teachers go so far as to specify the type of plan that should be used – spidergram, bulleted list, mindmap, flowchart and so on – whilst others resort to a plaintive, “I don’t mind how you plan as long as you actually have one!” The basic idea seems to be that any young writer who hasn’t organised content in advance of writing full sentences is doomed to failure.

Does this hold up in the real world (insofar as the world inhabited by professional writers can be said to be real)? Up to a point. Some successful writers plan methodically, even obsessively. David Baboulene’s The Story Book refuses even to entertain the idea of beginning a draft of a novel until a “step outline” has been written – and this outline can be nearly as long as the book itself. Other writers simply jot down an idea of how to get a bunch of characters to face a major problem and then they’re away: for them, part of the appeal of writing is the joy of discovery along the way. They’ll probably end up doing a lot more rewriting to correct faulty plot lines or meandering byways that the story unhelpfully took them along, but that goes with the territory. (For an example of this approach, try David Hewson’s Writing: a user manual)

Writing in the GCSE English examination means writing non fiction. It’s generally writing to argue, persuade, describe or inform and the topics tend to be fairly uninspiring, since they have to be socially, politically and ethnically neutral as well as touching on areas that 16 year olds might know something about. In the AQA version of the exam, there are two writing tasks, known as the “shorter” and the “longer”. The “shorter” is aptly named: the recommended time for it is 25 minutes. Nevertheless, students are generally expected to plan: “5 minutes’ planning, 5 minutes’ checking. That leaves you 15 minutes to produce 3 or 4 quality paragraphs!” (The more astute amongst my readers will have noticed that this is paragraph 4 of this piece. So far it has taken me half an hour.)

Is there any research showing that planned answers score more highly than unplanned ones in English examinations? Probably not – and even if there was, it would doubtless be inconclusive.

But here’s a thought: it’s actually impossible for the human mind to write any sort of extended piece without doing some sort of categorising and sorting. It’s just the way our brains work, making connections between ideas and putting them into some sort of logical order. In fact, it would be harder for most students to write a completely disjointed piece in 25 minutes than simply to let one idea lead on naturally to the next. So perhaps we should give up insisting that all young writers must be planners by default, and encourage the “seat of the pants approach” as more likely to produce high quality results.

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No news is bad news

Still no word on the Secondary National Curriculum. The screams of anguish emanating from the Department for Education are probably those of the expert advisers who are once again, no doubt, being told, “Fetch me a better answer” – even though they’ve been sent to the Oracle of best educational practice and come back with divinely inspired words telling of what happens in the finest jurisdictions.

So, in the absence of any hard facts, here are some predictions of what the new National Curriculum will contain.

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Yes, that’s right – nothing.

I’m willing to bet that the national curriculum, as a concept, will be scrapped. At present, Academies don’t have to follow it anyway, and since the plan is to convert just about every school into an academy, why bother with handed down programmes of study? It would make much more sense to abandon any sort of central control and fall back to the well known position that Headteachers know their schools best and can decide for themselves what curriculum their pupils will follow. No doubt some sort of measurement will remain – probably the Ebacc to make sure that academic standards are kept up in “better” schools (and we don’t have to worry about pupils who aren’t academic, do we? They’re not the movers and shakers of the future and there’ll probably be some sort of vocational course that they can occupy their time with until they reach the statutory leaving age).

Today’s carefully placed leaks, paving the way for a return to a two-tier exam system and a single exam board to run the only acceptable academic qualifications, is one more step on the road to a “sheep and goats” (or “wheat and chaff”, if you prefer) education system. Of course, this is the re-introduction of grammar schools by other means and will set back the educational clock by 40 years, but not to worry: at least there’ll be rigour in the system.

English GCSE: a spot of bother

There’s been a bit of kerfuffle about the AQA English GCSE papers this year. Specifically, a writing question on the English Language paper required the writing of a radio script and the instructions didn’t make it at all clear whether this was supposed to be some sort of monologue or a chat between two people. Given that this was on the Foundation paper, and, without resorting to stereotype, that it’s fair to say the students sitting it will be more familiar with Radio 1 than Radio 4, they’re very unlikely to be au fait with the sort of script that was perhaps being asked for. Besides which, this particular written genre has never featured in sample papers, past papers on this specification, nor even on the legacy specification.

Teachers will not have prepared their students to face this sort of writing. In one sense, that perhaps makes it fair, since everyone will be in the same boat (i.e. untaught), but there are stories circulating of large numbers of students writing nothing.

In English Literature, something worse may have happened. There’s a strong suspicion that the Foundation and Higher questions on the Poetry Anthology section somehow got switched over before the papers went to print. Whilst the same skills are tested in both papers, the Foundation questions are generally a little wider in scope, tend to focus on the easier poems in the set selection and often feature bullet pointed suggestions of what to write about to support students in framing a relevant answer. In both questions on the Relationshipssection, the wider question appeared on the Higher paper and the narrower one on Foundation, viz:

Foundation: …present a close relationship

Higher: …present relationships

and

Foundation: …feelings for a woman

Higher: …feelings about another person

Coupled with that, the named poems in the Foundation questions were more demanding in terms of their complexity and length, whilst those named in the Higher questions were shorter, contemporary and perceived by teachers as much more straightforward.

And to make matters even worse, the Unseen poem on the Foundation paper was on the theme of “being thick”. This has widely been seen as adding insult to injury.

Conspiracy theorists will be quick to jump in here. AQA enjoys the lion’s share of the English GCSE market, so results with this board will significantly affect the overall percentage pass this year. It’s an open secret that the more right wing elements in the coalition are fed up with results in GCSE going up and up year after year, and have demanded a sterner test of the nation’s youth. Hence the abandonment, from next year, of modular examinations. As far as the Department for Education is concerned, it’s terminal examinations, or nothing. Which probably means that it will indeed be terminal for raising achievement.

As yet there’s been no response from AQA. They probably needn’t worry: there’s nothing in the rules that says they have to make the Foundation questions more accessible, nor a rule that says they can’t set any form of writing they want to in the Writing section of English Language. And they’ll almost certainly have the support of St Michael, so they’re laughing all the way to results day in August.