Thursday, 19 September 2013


It's been a stressful, tiring week and I sat down yesterday evening to post my thoughts on the reform on Junior Cert English. I'd left my hard copy of the Draft Specification in work and went to look it up online; I couldn't find it on the NCCA website but found something called the Draft Syllabus for English. That was quick, I thought, as consultation on the Draft Specifications only closed last Thursday. I went ahead and gave my assessment of this document without realising it dates from 1989 and is actually a draft of the current syllabus.  No wonder it looked nearly the same!

Seriously, am seriously red in the face morto. For one thing, I should have recognised the draft as being almost identical to the syllabus I'm teaching, though thank God when it came to composing the real thing they left out Writing a Letter of Condolence. Imagine if that came up in Functional Writing? Knowing the capricious minds that compose the Junior Cert paper, it's probably something I should be covering.

So back to the Draft Specification, which, as Evelyn O'Connor writes here is an impressive document. It's impressive mostly in its documentalism, being put together by people who really know how to write a document, but who might seem a bit removed from the English classroom.  The document runs high to psychobabble and is full of assumptions and low on facts. One generalisation that particularly infuriated me was "Education systems across the world are increasingly supporting teachers to get beyond marks and grades to more detailed feedback that focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning."

I don't know any English teacher whose only comment on student work is a mark out of x. But the real point is the idea that we'll all jump at the mention of "education systems across the world".  We need examples, real references, real studies and footnotes or links to research that we can verify to our own satisfaction.

An example of psychobabble in the document is the link between English and Key Skills. (Everything to do with the new Junior Cycle involves keys.) Under the skill "staying well" we learn that in English students will learn to "be confident".  Big Pharma has indeed done its job in defining shyness as an illness. That is not to say that I hope my students won't be more confident writers, readers and hopefully speakers, but I don't fool myself that I can actually make them confident in themselves. And I don't see my shyer, less forthcoming students as less well or healthy than their outspoken peers.

The new course is incredibly broad and ambitious. Here is a selection of tasks students are expected to master
-Engage in extended and constructive discussion of their own and other students, work. ( Not just "discuss", mind you, but "engage in extended and constructive discussion").
-Demonstrate how grammar, text structure and word choice vary with context and purpose.
-Be creative with syntax
-Read for research
-Appreciate how the meaning of sentences can be made richer through the use of grammatical and/or syntactical manipulation
-Write their responses in a "personal voice" as their individual style is thoughtfully developed over the years.
-Search a range of texts, including digital texts, in order to locate information, to interpret, critically evaluate, compare, synthesise and create text.

It's difficult to see how all this is going to be achieved with a cohort who have difficulty knowing quite from quiet or there from their and who frequently write "a lot" as one word. And it's hard to see how students' writing will improve so much when we're being told to spend less time on literature and more time listening to soundtracks and multimodal texts.

The document promises "a wide range of study" but you cannot broaden, broaden and broaden and not expect to compromise on quality. Just as you cannot increase and increase teachers' workload and expect us to bound into class brimming with enthusiasm.

The downgrading of literature within the English classroom is particularly worrying.  I was quite pleased with the inclusion of oral presentation in the specification. It's an important skill and one that ties in with English. However, I learned on Monday that it would be unacceptable for a student to pick a literary topic as a subject for his or her presentation. Favourite authors or books are out. The point of oral literacy seems to be less about encouraging expression and oratory, and more about training mini-middle-managers in the art of  props and PowerPointlessness.

Like all initiatives, the new Junior Cycle English will be modified and made more realistic on the ground.  It's coming and we'll have to get used to it. But this strikes me as an exercise in formatting students as products; well-adjusted, self-centred and unchallenged by anything irrelevant to their own lives. Nowhere in the specifications does it mention how English can bridge gaps between ourselves and others, between us and other cultures, between our time and other times and how it can deepen our sense of what it is to be human.

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