Are A-levels dumbing down?

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Yes – Julia Molloy

The English language has change massively over the last few decades. With the introduction and widespread popularity of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, English speakers are frequently exposed to shortened versions of language, varying dialects and accents, as well as receiving information in bite-sized, 140-character chunks. In order to represent such wide shifts in the English language, the exam board OCR has outlined its new content for English A-level, which includes the likes of an interview with Dizzee Rascal and a speech made by Russell Brand to the House of Commons on drug abuse. The suggestions have faced immediate backlash from the Department for Education, which has argued that the outline for the A-level will be rejected by the examination regulator Ofqual, and that students studying such content would not be able to get into the best universities.

Despite having studying English Language at A-level myself, which included studying social media messages, I think concern should be raised against the inclusion of this new content into the A-level syllabus. It’s important first of all to specify that at A-level, there are three qualifications which all entail different demands from students. English Literature focuses purely on literature, from Shakespeare to the present day; English Language is much more concerned with the origins of English as well as using English on an everyday basis; and English Language and Literature examines the English language as used within literature. Clearly OCR’s decision to include content such as tweets is highly suitable for the English Language qualification, but is it really sensible to have to study such content alongside the more traditional stuff in OCR’s English Language and Literature course?

It may indeed be important to realise the implications of using English on an everyday basis, but OCR’s efforts to produce a tantalising A-level course that is modern and up-to-date only suggests to people like me, who value English Literature, that studying the classic stuff – Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Dickens, amongst plenty of others – is meant to be dry and dull in comparison. OCR may hail its own course outline as the most varied English course there is, but the fact is that unless students have the background in Standard English, it is nigh on impossible to understand the full importance of more modern usages. Pedantic and prescriptive as it is, it isn’t too outlandish to say that if students become more and more used to studying colloquial language, then the older stuff will fade into the background and we’ll all be talking and writing in 140-character chunks.

The real problem that lies underneath all the uproar about the new English A-level, however, is whether A-levels really needed reforming in the first place. I do think that A-levels should be rigorous and this should include difficult content, particularly for English. Next year I’m going to have the daunting task of studying a new Shakespeare play every week, whilst my second year involved reading some very difficult literary criticism. Even for those studying English Language or Linguistics at university, everyday language may be the focus for study but the textbooks alongside that and the thinking that goes behind the concepts learnt require a good level of understanding of the English language. It would be naïve to think that Russell Brand, despite his outward show, does not use the linguistic techniques worthy of study, but equally if all of our efforts and enjoyment came from studying such content, the more difficult subjects would seem more unreachable than ever. To this end, it is hard to understand why Michael Gove and his colleagues feel the need for a complete overhaul of A-levels at all, or at least in English. My English A-levels were by far the most enjoyable and were demanding both in the context of modern, everyday usages of English and literature itself. Why do we need reform at all?

My worry is that OCR’s unveiling of its new content, whilst not an immediate dumbing down, will lead to an ultimate decline in the number of people interested in studying older, canonized texts. For most, the prospect of studying something that is far easier to understand and relatable in terms of its modern qualities will soon overtake the dreaded study of Shakespeare, and then where will we be? We should remain sceptical about the new plans; Britain’s education is struggling enough against its competitors without dumbing down studies of the language itself.

No – Erik Apter

OCR’s recent decision to feature texts including Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal in an English Language and Literature A-level syllabus has been accused of continuing the trend towards “dumbing down” education. One source from with the Department of Education actually even accused OCR of “having a laugh” with regards to their new plans – ironically demonstrating the exact sort of colloquial phrase they are trying to eradicate from A-Level syllabuses.

As a student currently enrolled on an English language course, it saddens me to see the out of touch, ill-informed and prescriptivist views on our language coming to the fore in the national press once again. Quite frankly, I have no idea where all of this controversy has even come from. My only guess is that Michael Gove felt the need to stir up some public outrage to gain support for his own archaic education reforms.

The success of English as a language has come from its flexibility to adapt throughout history, whether it be from borrowing large amounts of French during the Norman invasion or embracing the language of the internet. What is wrong, then, with studying relevant and modern sources in a classroom environment? Twitter, football articles and interviews with celebrities make up a huge proportion of the texts people engage with on a daily basis and rightly should be studied on English courses.

The narrow-sighted view that English should be taught only in terms of classic literature is one that is still rife within the “A-levels are too easy” brigade. OCR has stated that their course contains a selection of texts including classic works by the likes of Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte, but of course this has been largely ignored by the education snobs who only pick up on the bits that they want to criticise.

Instead these people decide to focus on just one aspect of the multi-dimensional course, choosing to blindly rant at the fact Russell Brand will undoubtedly corrupt our youth into a nation of quick-witted cockney drug addicts. They fail to actually consider the nature of the A-level, since studying a wide array of texts is exactly what a good English Language and Literature course should do, encompassing a variety of ideas across two very different subjects.

Brand is a fascinating subject for any English language student as he combines a hugely extensive vocabulary with a cockney vernacular, making him the perfect alternative modern-day wordsmith to study, whether you like him or not. It is not simply a case of making the work for students more enjoyable or easier; it’s about students understanding language in a modern context and analysing how the English language has changed with the introduction of technology.

Chris McGovern, a former head teacher and chairman of the campaign for “real” education, told the Telegraph: “I can assure you that when pupils in China, Singapore and other high-performing countries sit down to study English they won’t be turning to Russell Brand, rappers and tweets. This is all about diluting and dumbing down.”

McGovern also criticised modern education for being too “relevant” and “accessible”, two words that I always considered to be a good thing but then again, I suppose I’ve never experienced “real” education before. Surely modern education should be relevant. In my A-Levels I was subjected to a selection of texts that helped me understand the development of English, consulting modern “rubbish” alongside older texts, some of which embraced concepts of racism and sexism. If only I had been around for the good old exam factory days of the past.

Modern education should be adapting in the same way that English does, whether you like it or not. The internet and social media are a massive part of modern society and there are jobs to be had by learning about them, something which many fail to realise. Whether it’s a sonnet, a rap, a novel or a tweet: all language is important and relevant to be studied.

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Erik Apter

SCAN Assistant Editor 2014-15

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