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I find myself in an odd position. For the first time in my career I am having to sell my subject. This is something that, as an English teacher, I didn't think I'd ever have to do. Mathematics is now, apparently, the most popular A Level subject - overtaking the position that English previously held.
Clearly, A Levels in the three Language, Literature and Lang-Lit options are still enormously popular and the fractions of percentage differences in share of total entrants between Mathematics and English is probably not that statistically significant. Sadly, I am not sufficiently proficient a mathematician to know for sure.
However, statistics aside, I have felt a barely perceptible, but nevertheless important, change in the past two or three years just in my own immediate setting regarding subject choices and I believe it reflects what is happening out there in the world beyond education. For those idealists amongst us who have always admired Alan Bennett's renegade Hector in his fight against education having "anything to do with getting on", I sense these days that 'getting on' really does matter to students more than ever, given our bleak economic circumstances.
Today's A Level students hark from households which have felt an economic pinch which has squeezed them in ways not formerly felt. Today, as I look into the eyes of Year 11 students, I don't see idealism or even a desire to end up at the University with the best bar. Today, the economics of education and the world that lies beyond it mean that the practical application of subject choices is paramount.
It also occurs to me that these are students who, more so than ever before, have been put through the GCSE wringer. Much as we all try, it can be very difficult to be creative and take the road less travelled in your teaching when you have accountability measures hanging around your neck. Much as I adore my own subject, I can understand that, for many, their experience of GCSE English Language has been the proverbial final straw. After this an A Level in any kind of English may well be beyond the pale.
And yet, as this summer's news turns to autumn's, I also feel a fresh imperative for my subject to be perceived as vital and relevant. This summer, the 'migrant crisis', was quickly subsumed, in language terms, by the 'refugee crisis' immediately following the publication of tragic pictures of the Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. Also this summer, the media portrayal of Jeremy Corbyn made histrionics a byword for reporting. This autumn, Theresa May used what any Year 9 student of English would identify as emotive language in her comments that migrants may 'force' down wages or 'force' some out of a job.
This weekend, I once again marked essays comparing the black South African's experience represented in Fugard's Tsotsi to the experiences distilled in writing ranging from Angelou to Mtschali. All written by a group of students, a large number of whom could not really tell me much about Nelson Mandela other than that he had 'died recently, hadn't he?'
How do we read the shifting sands of language and what does language have to say about our human experience today? What does the shift in perspective offered by narratives such as Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, teach us about our own values and how to be human? Tomorrow's students face far tougher challenges than my own generation have had to swallow. Tomorrow's students will need to contend with economic, ecological and humanitarian monsters we are only beginning to imagine today.
This 6th Form Open Evening, I will not just be selling my subject because, as a centre, our own English entries have fallen at a faster rate than the national picture. I will also not just be selling my subject because I too have moments, like Hector in The History Boys, when literature touches me in a way that is remarkably personal, "as if a hand has come out and taken" mine to reassure me that I am not, like Hector, alone. This 6th Form Open Evening, I will be selling my subject because it is a subject more necessary to students today than ever before and because if students wish to understand their place in the world, and how they are manipulated within it, then they really need to engage with subjects that speak to them of the brutality of the human experience and how to negotiate their way through it.
Julie Platten - Head of English at Freman College
Julie Platten is Head of English at Freman College, an upper school in North Hertfordshire. She has been an A Level examiner for OCR for a number of years and has recently been appointed Principal Examiner for modules on the new 2015 A Level specifications. In order to deepen her understanding of the impact of assessment on her classroom, Julie is currently studying towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Educational Assessment and Examinations, a course collaboration between Cambridge Assessment and the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.
Before training to teach, Julie had an extensive career in business, latterly focused in marketing and internal communications for the telecommunications sector.