English in the News

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Completing this column just before the Man Booker Prize was announced has introduced a competitive tone. Papers and politicians have fretted about standards as authors awaited the results of their own examinations. Fellow Glossop author (and eventual Booker winner) Hilary Mantel wrote in The Guardian in September: 'These days I'm always glad when autumn comes, when the exam season is over, and the poor teenagers have had their results ridiculed, and everyone is bedded down, or not, in their university or college. In the lead-up, while the discussion of declining standards is going on, I'm subject to flares of retrospective panic.' Yet although some will have prizes, one enthusiastic writer lost her job through appealing rather too successfully to her audience.

The summer brought the customary pre-emptive complaints of declining standards. The Telegraph declared: 'The year-on-year rise in A grades is because exams are easier to pass and students are granted multiple re-sits to boost scores,' reminding readers that this was 'just days before thousands of students receive A-level results'. Strangely, in October the Observer was reporting that Mickey Mouse had turned into Tiger Tim: '"Tougher" AS-level marking makes private schools cry foul.' 'Thousands of pupils taking ASlevel exams this summer received lower grades because examiners were told to toughen their marking, the head of a coalition of private schools has claimed.' It is fortunate, therefore, that Andrew Grant's St Albans School has seven cricket pitches where they can still learn, in Sir Henry Newbolt's stirring words, to 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

Scrap GCSEs, says Labour education guru

While the Telegraph was rubbishing A Levels, in The Observer a 'Labour education guru' was sticking his knife in GCSE exams. 'Peter Hyman, who was in Tony Blair's inner circle for almost a decade before he left to become a teacher, says that life on the "frontline" has convinced him the government's strategic direction is wrong.' Hyman wrote: 'There is almost an unspoken deal: we'll spoon-feed you the required information to pass your exams, if you play by the rules and do your homework on time.' Welcome to the real world, we sigh, where, despite all these well-founded misgivings, both GCSE and A Level examinations have just been given another major overhaul, increasing pressure on 'frontline' troops.

It didn't seem fair that words could do so much

Hilary Mantel's reflections on examinations were prompted by finding The Eleven-Plus Book: Genuine Exam Questions from Yesteryear. 'Are there really people who would buy this and chortle over it as they recalled the torments of their childhood?' she asked in The Guardian. After one O Level examination, she 'came out confident, because I reckoned that any 15-year-old who could, like me, wield the word "parthenogenesis", was bound to get to the top of the heap. Regrettably, I was right. It didn't seem fair that words could do so much' Such success seems to bring its own price, however: 'I've asked myself whether going into school to collect A Level results was better or worse than waiting till this month to know if I've found favour with the Man Booker judges.'

Testing, testing ... failing, failing

Your SATs will find you out: the Guardian revealed a memo from Sue Hackman, a former English teacher and now the government's chief adviser on school standards. She warned the Education Secretary that the trial of the ETS system for the 2008 SATs 'did not provide any robust evidence of improvement in marking quality'. Perhaps, Sue, it's the whole concept that's flawed? Warwick Mansell reported in June that 'a secret report says the government's replacement for SATs is "incoherent"'. 'Some extraordinary results are revealed,' he wrote of the new single-level tests, 'with secondary pupils consistently scoring significantly worse than primary pupils.... In writing, those up to the age of 11 fared better than older children. …