The versatile writer

The secure versatile writer has mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing. He or she has confidence in using writing skills and can respond clearly and coherently across the full range of forms that have been encountered, taking account of purpose and audience. He or she performs well in a range of contexts … but recognises that there is much to learn so that … through wider experience of reading and writing, and increasing care and accuracy, their writing will continue to improve.

Who is this a description of? (Correction: as all 11 year olds will know once they’ve studied for the new Grammar Test in 2013, that sentence should read “Of whom is this a description?”) Martin Amis? Ian McEwan? Alan Hollinghurst? Hilary Mantel? Actually, none of these. Rather it describes the “Versatile writer”, one who is “likely to be assessed as … GCSE grade C” according to the English progression map guide: Writing published by the Department for Education in 2009.

Most writers would be proud to be called “versatile”, and even more pleased to know that they had “mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing”. But if this truly describes and represents a grade C at GCSE, generally the minimum grade acceptable for employment or higher education, why do we hear the continual complaint that standards of writing are dropping?

The problem, of course, is that the initial description lacks a context. In the realm of education, teachers will recognise the language of the level or grade descriptor and will set their expectations of the kind of writing they might see at this grade accordingly. This is not a description that would stand up to scrutiny in the real world outside school.

But the professional or indeed the hobbyist writer may be interested to know what the D of E’s targets are for students who have already reached these exalted heights at an early age and want to progress even further. In fact, becoming an even better writer is fairly simple. Apparently, all you need to do is:

choose words wisely and ambitiously;

and

construct and shape my writing so that the reader responds as I intend.

There: that’s not too hard, is it?

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.