Assessing national standards


A new report by QS, a firm of global education analysts, places the quality of the UK’s higher education system as second only to that of the world leader, the United States.   This finding may come as a surprise to those who have become used to international league tables that rate the quality of education in both countries as well below such states and jurisdictions as South Korea, Shanghai and Finland.  This discrepancy points to the need for any kind of evaluation to be clear about what is being tested, how, and with what purpose.  (Any valid global assessment of relative national achievement in literacy, for example, would need to demonstrate what aspects of literacy were examined, in what populations, and in what ways; how it provided valid comparisons between countries with very different languages, social systems and educational institutions; and the overall assumptions and purpose of the investigation.)

In the case of this new report, the stated purpose of the analysis is to measure the factors that make a nation’s higher education system more likely to succeed. It is based on four criteria, each weighted equally:

  1. System strength: the rankings performance of a nation’s institutions.
  2. Access: how likely a talented individual is to find a place at a top university in their home country, based on the number of places available at said institutions and population size.
  3. Flagship: the global performance of a nation’s top institution.
  4. Economy: the quality of a country’s economic environment for its higher education institutions, and whether economic prosperity translates into performance.

According to John O’Leary, Editor of the Times Education Guide and member of QS’s Executive Board, the advantage of this ranking approach is that it looks at the quality and accessibility of higher education as a whole.  “Assessing whole systems is not just about the top universities – if it were, Singapore would be much higher than it is and some European countries would be lower.”

It’s interesting to speculate what would come out of a survey that similarly attempted to assess the quality and accessibility of UK primary and secondary education as a whole.   Clearly the questions asked would differ from those in the new QS survey, but given the amount of data already being collected at various stages of students’ progress, it should be possible to assess the performance of UK schools as a whole in realising the potential of their students.  Dealing with some of the current issues about curriculum and assessment, however, might require a more qualitative approach than is usual in these large-scale evaluations.  Nonetheless, UK primary and secondary education has been transformed to offer more equal opportunity over the last 40 years, and international comparisons of the UK’s success in educating the people might be revealing.

Why Dartmouth mattered


Shortly after its inception in 1963, NATE joined with the US National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Languages Association (MLA) to secure funding for a month’s long seminar at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The plan – as John Dixon has written, perhaps surprising today – was that a group of 40 to 50 teachers in schools and universities would thrash out the fundamental questions about English teaching and, through their national associations, spearhead a new approach.

Delegates to the conference brought visions of English teaching that differed not only between but (in some cases) also within the participant territories. English teachers in the United States employed rhetorical models of expository writing that were less familiar to participants from the UK, several of whom brought to Dartmouth a tradition of close literary study originating largely from the Scrutiny-inspired Cambridge school. At the same time, delegates from the London Institute of Education, including James Britton and Harold Rosen, insisted on the importance of respecting and working with the language that children brought to the classroom as a starting point for development.

In the circumstances, it was necessary to find a principle of English teaching that would reconcile these divergent approaches to teaching and learning within the prevailing educational climate. The concept of “personal growth”, articulated by John Dixon of the UK delegation, provided a pedagogic ideal which most could support. It spoke both to the delegates’ awareness of wasted talent in the school-age population and to the zeitgeist that produced the human potential movement, R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, and the Summer of Love of 1967. Fifty years on, it is still the principle of English teaching that gains the allegiance of a majority of practitioners. This is because the radical core of the concept of “personal growth” was the student’s own language.

This focus on the child’s language emphatically did not exclude or marginalise literature. Pupils’ written stories and poems, when shared and discussed, became “the literature of the classroom”. And delegates from both sides of the Atlantic were surprisingly united (Dixon writes) in their view of literary response: “The experience of art is a thing of our making, an activity in which we are our own interpretive artist.”

These formulations about students’ language and literary response were developed, amended and rewritten over the next half century in NATE publications and elsewhere.  During these years, language study was reconstituted, insights from discourse studies of genre and narrative were assimilated, and technological change was incorporated into everyday classroom practice. The development of English studies over the last half-century demonstrates (in the words of Garth Boomer, a former president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English) that the curriculum is no longer a prepackaged course to be taken; it is a jointly enacted composition that grows and changes as it proceeds.  The view that the experience and language that the child brought the classroom was intrinsically important, and that the process of teaching English must start here – not merely to impose class-based notions of formality and correctness, but to work with students to expand their language, cognition and range of feeling: this is the legacy and the importance of Dartmouth.

This post is adapted from an article to be published in Teaching English.   There will be a research symposium on Dartmouth on 26 June 2016 following the NATE Conference in Stratford on Avon.

Renewing acquaintance with James Britton


Last Saturday, the London Association for the Teaching of English ran a day conference at the Institute of Education on the work and legacy of James Britton.    Some of the large gathering had known and worked with Britton; others had had only recently completed training in the institution where his ideas had influenced the practice of generations of English teachers. Others, myself included, had less direct knowledge of the man and the institution.

In the keynote session of the conference, Tony Burgess reflected on Britton’s life and ideas, while Myra Barrs explained how Britton had influenced her work as a teacher and adviser. Britton had been the forming hand behind both LATE and NATE, and the ‘shuttle’ between classroom and theory that he practised remains a key principle. He accepted the intrinsic interest and importance of children’s language, and the quotations from children that feature so frequently in Britton’s work are not just illustrations of his thinking but part of the thinking. His ideas have had a profound effect on educational theory and practice – in Canada as much as in the UK – and are still influential despite the current regime of reaction and quantification

Britton believed that understanding the relationship between language and thought was key to understanding how children gain language fluency. In chapter 2 of Language and Learning (1970), he used the work of Luria and Vygotsky, then little known in the UK, to examine the development of thought and language. He saw language as a means of building up a representation of the world. An inward running commentary on experience that operates alongside social speech becomes internal speech: a retrospect that enables a prospect. Speech thus precedes writing, and children’s written language develops from and alongside their talking.

Priorities for the classroom follow this view of language. Britton insisted that language in the classroom should be used for real purposes, one of the most important of which is listening. Myra Barrs recalled that Britton had been a modest speaker and active listener: his colleagues remarked on his intent yet warm attention on the speaker and his encouraging: “Go on.”

Britton developed the concept of the Participant and Spectator roles of language: the speaker/thinker acts on the world by means of the representation and acts on the representation itself. From this point of view, literature does not occupy a different realm from other language; expressive and poetic writing and reading are natural functions of the spectator role. The concept of the spectator role thus brings literature into touch with processes in the everyday life of young people.

As Viv Ellis has written, Britton was ‘the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); … Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense’.   In the final session of the conference, Simon Clements and Douglas Barnes, both of whom had worked with James Britton, spoke. According to Douglas Barnes, one learned from Britton how to be a person as well as a teacher. Could there be a better account of the legacy of a seminal figure in the study of language and the teaching of English?


This post is taken from an article to be published in Teaching English

The Politics of English …


… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.


Assessment and Learning – Call for Papers



2017 Special Issue on Assessment and Learning

Edited by Ann Harris

Deadline for Submissions: 2 May 2016

Despite the prevailing rhetoric around learning, assessment remains a crucial measure of success in schools and colleges. Students are judged, qualify and progress on the basis of assessment. Institutions and their teachers are commended or condemned on the grounds of results. Thus, while we might like to think education is about personal growth and the fulfilment of potential, all too often it is about a mark on a page or the copy of a transcript. These issues are not just national but international, especially in an increasingly globalised and competitive economy where the transferability and currency of qualifications is of vital importance to stakeholders. So, is assessment about certification and selection; or is it about meritocracy and social justice? How can we find our way through the uncertain and conflicting notions of the social function of educational assessment? Debates have raged about assessment for decades: whether standards are rising or being dumbed down; whether norm or criterion referencing is preferable (and whether the latter is even feasible); whether knowledge or understanding is being assessed; whether memory or competence is being tested.

In English and related arts subjects, the debate has been particularly keen both about the mode of assessment and the matter of judgement. In the UK, English was the first of the “traditional” subjects to introduce significant assessment by coursework and to celebrate the notion that the learning and teaching of language and literature gained from this. In the 1970s and 1980s, “experimental” courses in literature and language demonstrated the creativity and criticality of which secondary school students were capable if they had the opportunity to research, draft and develop a response. Academic judgement was required, however, to grade the work and to establish the validity and reliability of the assessment, and, as a result, standardisation and moderation needed to be meticulously conducted to ensure credibility and an appropriate professional discourse around assessment and grading.

Such courses were introduced in different times: before the World Wide Web and before league tables; and such initiatives have retreated in face of the increasing politicisation of learning and assessment. Yet, whether it involves evaluating coursework or marking an examination, assessment is always a socially constructed activity involving cognitive processes, social judgement and cultural quantification when applying standards, determining levels and deciding whether specific assessment objectives have been met. In England and Wales, what are the professional and social implications around assessment in English now it is moving back primarily to summative examinations? Nationally and internationally, how do we define success and failure, given the global influence of PISA? Is there still a concept of fitness for purpose and of authentic, fair and just assessment?

In this special edition, we welcome papers from the UK and internationally around all aspects of learning and assessment, whether from the perspective of researchers or of students, teachers or examiners; and from whatever sector – primary, secondary, post compulsory or higher education. We are keen to debate theoretical or practice based approaches to the challenges of relating assessment to learning within different contexts. Contributions which seek to interrogate prevailing dogma, introduce comparative or international dimensions or discuss alternative approaches to learning and assessment are also welcome.

Please prepare your submission in line with the guidance in the English in Education section of the NATE website.  Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site.  Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type. Deadline for submissions is 2 May 2016.

Forthcoming issues of English in Education

EiE Autumn 2015 cover

The theme of the autumn 2015 issue of English in Education, to be published shortly, is Actor and Network. How do teachers reconcile their sense of professional identity with the demands of working in a political and cultural environment that may at times feel anti-educational if not anti-human?

Pete Bearder writes about his experience of working with students to develop Spoken Word – performance poetry – in a London secondary school.   Bearder was licensed by his role as poet-educator to breach the boundaries of poetry performance in school as normally individual and recitative. Margaret Merga argues that material access to books in home and school is still a necessary factor in student success and progress. Judith Kneen’s paper on the use of interactive white-boards in English teaching makes a fascinating analysis of both the affordances and the limits of this ubiquitous technology. Like Bearder, but in a different classroom context, Tom Dobson finds himself both Teacher and Writer-Researcher. His paper examines ways in which teacher and student identities inflect writing practices within the classroom.

The reviews in this issue also deal with work against the grain.   Simon Gibbons’ The London Association for the Teaching of English 1947-67: a history, reviewed by Tony Burgess, describes the collaborative research and experiment through which, over more than twenty years, LATE built the foundations for a transformation in English teaching.   Burgess also brings out Gibbons’ suggestions as to ways forward in our current situation.   John Yandell’s The Social Construction of Meaning demonstrates the kind of teaching, sensitive to the cultural position of the reader as well as of the text, that helps students in urban schools students find meaning in canonical literature. Yandell reminds us that the life of English is in students’ authentic, embodied engagement with and response to their reading. This is a sentiment with which every contributor to this issue will surely agree.

The spring 2016 special issue of the journal, edited by Ken Jones, will develop these themes by an explicitly political analysis. For decades, relationships between culture and authority, language and power, have been vigorously explored in reflections on school English. Contributors to the special issue will assess current conceptions of language, creativity and knowledge as they are enacted in the micro-politics of the classroom. How can teachers re-connect with the energies of past practitioners who transformed the nature of English teaching at an earlier time of political and institutional change?

Creativity foreclosed


The Department of Education for England has ruled that the A-level course (for senior secondary school students) in Creative Writing should not be available after 2017. This course has only recently been introduced after a long gestation period that involved a good deal of consultation between the profession, the examination board and Ofqual, the qualifications regulator. The statement from the DfE gives no detail as to the reasons for this decision, but it is understood that the course is thought to reward skills rather than knowledge and to overlap with other A-level English subjects.

The relationship between skill and knowledge is much contested philosophically, but in the case of writing it is evident that a high level of skill depends upon the ability to apply cultural knowledge. Shakespeare’s gift depended on his knowledge of the histories, chronicles and popular literature of his time. In the A-level Creative Writing course, students have to study non-literary (‘professional’) writing, prose fiction, prose non-fiction, poetry and play-script. In this way, they develop their grasp of generic conventions, style and voice, narrative and poetic techniques and other aspects of the writer’s craft. The extent and depth of their knowledge is assessed not only by the content of their writing but also by the reflective commentary that they supply as part of the assessment.

If the first of the DfE objections implies that candidates don’t gain sufficient knowledge, the second rather paradoxically suggests that the knowledge they gain overlaps with that offered by other English subjects. Some overlap between subject content is inevitable in many fields of study, but the crucial difference here is that creative writing is a different kind of knowledge from that assessed in a Literature course.

The most popular English A-level, English Literature, involves writing about literary texts. Novels, plays and poems are analysed by reference to genre, historical context and literary qualities. This analysis is then assessed largely by an end-of-course examination. This kind of writing, where the literary text is used as evidence in a formal argument, is very different from creative writing, where cultural knowledge is used in order to produce an original work. It is the same difference as the difference between writing about art or music and producing an artistic or musical work. Writing can be as much a creative activity as are art and music: an embodied form of knowledge that, in the words of the teacher quoted below, makes learning tangible.

This teacher’s college piloted the A-level in its first year and gained an immediate enthusiastic response from students. Some who weren’t even enrolled dropped in to take part. In its second year, the course enrolled 70 students. She gives a passionate account of their achievement:

In Creative Writing students learn, through writing practice and wide reading in contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and script, to use the English Language for creative purposes. Some have been published or won prizes through for their writing. That, however, is not the achievement of the course. What is, is the genuine spirit of collaborative exploration of ideas and ways to express them in words. An effective writing workshop makes learning tangible. Students offering advice, support and critical appreciation of each other’s work is at the heart of this subject. They are not passive vessels soaking up content but are active creators of new literature. The subject is empowering and enabling. In a recent poetry workshop, one student grinned at me and said, ‘This is so exciting.’ I have never heard that in an English Language or Literature classroom.

Yes, writing is a skill, but it is also a craft and an art. I love teaching English Literature but as Ted Hughes exemplified, it does not foster creativity. Creative Writing as product is central to our culture. Why then is Creative Writing as practice not central to our education system?

At the same time that creative writing is being withdrawn from the A-level curriculum, it is increasingly studied in higher education: including combined degrees, there are more than 500 creative writing courses in UK universities. Given the intention signalled by the DFE in recent years to improve continuity and progression between A-level and higher education, the withdrawal of A level Creative Writing is an extraordinarily retrograde step.

A petition started by the National Association of Writers in Education has reached nearly 4,000 signatures.