Welcome to the brave new world of Key Stage 4 English
And the trouble is that it’s sitting alongside the brave new world of Key Stage 3, which itself rubs shoulders with a whole new primary curriculum, and then at the other end there are all those momentous changes to post-16 English.
So welcome, in other words, to the brave new world of everything in English.
Never, it seems, has so much ground been shifting under so many English teachers’ feet.
There are two ways to look at this. First, we can panic or feel underwhelmed. That’s an obvious reaction. As I have said at many conferences and written in many articles and blogs, the role of Head of English was never more challenging. You have the pressure of accountability from above, and the pressure of leading a team from below.
I know from the many messages I get that there are times in the year when the role can feel pretty unmanageable.
So panic is a definite item on the to-do list.
But we can also see things differently and acknowledge that in an age of unrealistic expectations, we can only do what we can only do. That means acknowledging that we should hold on tight to what we teach well – the texts, the approaches, the assessments – and not go hurtling into convulsive change on all fronts.
My own view – for what it’s worth, as someone who has been teaching English for almost thirty years – is that we must hold on to the distinctiveness of what and how we each in our own schools and classrooms.
Implications for KS3
Take where I teach – in Suffolk – we owe it to our students and communities to make sure that our classrooms are providing an especially rich core of texts that help students to know that there is a big, colourful world out there – one that is diverse, fast-paced, challenging. We want our Key Stage 3 English programme to be building skills and knowledge that will prepare our students to navigate their way through a world which is more complex than the one they may routinely encounter in their villages and towns.
We certainly won’t want Key Stage 3 to become a diluted version of GCSE. We will want it to retain its distinctiveness. But we also know that the demands of GCSE are going to be greater – that emphasis on more challenging texts. Therefore we will want to make sure that our students have opportunities to encounter texts from further back in time than they might have done in the past. We will want them to hone their resilience, their stickability in the face of words and sentences and paragraphs that initially they can’t immediately ‘get’. Our Key Stage 3 will be a practice pool for the deeper waters of Key Stage 4. We’ll splash about a lot, build confidence, teach essential skills. But Key Stage 3 won’t feel like an extended run-up to GCSE.
So Key Stage 3 is going to need more planned encounters with nineteenth century texts. It’s also an opportunity for some interesting work on context, perhaps in collaboration with colleagues teaching History.
Implications for KS4
Then there’s Key Stage 4. This is where my attention would be going as we prepare our teaching teams for the new specifications. There are some big decisions to make. Now that controlled assessments are behind us, most of us will still want to retain elements of formal testing, opportunities for students to demonstrate what they can do in the more austere conditions of a test. It may be therefore that every unit will have a formal assessment built in – an opportunity for students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they have learnt, for teachers to see objectively how each student in their classes is progressing, and for the English team as a whole to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the cohort.
In this way a formal assessment can be playing an important summative role (‘here’s what students now can do …’) and a formative one (‘….which means they need now to do more of this or this’).
A reading curriculum
GCSE essentially puts reading at the core – with a need for encounters with unseen texts, plus an ambitious diet of nineteenth and twentieth century texts in English Literature. We will want to create English Departments environments that exude a sense of scholarship and a celebration of texts through the ages – big displays of writers and the novels, poems and plays that have helped to define our culture. We will want visually to show why these texts matter, and to demystify the process of reading texts that initially intimidate us.
Then there’s the increased emphasis on accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. There’s not an English Department in the country that won’t always have seen these aspects of writing as important, but now the stakes have been raised again.
The temptation may be to introduce the kind of sterile box-filling language activities which once characterised too many English lessons.
Experience shows us that mechanical approaches to SPAG usually lead either to no impact, or to a predictably mechanical style of writing.
Instead, our ambition should remain a rich curriculum rooted in real texts which students are encouraged to explore in the spirit of critical investigations.
But we probably do need also to be more relentless in our expectations of how students present their work, in the attention to detail, in having personal spelling lists that students work on and get tested in, and on emphasizing all the time the bedrocks of clear writing – short and long sentences, capital letter and full stops, paragraphs that help the reader to follow the development of our ideas.
These are fundamental to good writing, and it’s worth remembering that students need to see them modeled – the way we as writers make decisions about when to end a sentence, how to punctuate, when to begin a new paragraph.
This explicit modeling of writing – and showing why accuracy matters for clarity and precision – will be essential in helping students to develop their own writing.
Implications for KS5
And then there are the implications for A-level. But that’s another story …
With all best wishes in developing the rich and challenging KS4 curriculum in your own distinctive context.
Geoff Barton has written and edited more than fifty books on grammar and literature, and regularly consults for the Department of Education and other agencies. He is also Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.