There has been much hand-wringing over the past couple of years about the place of speaking and listening in the English curriculum. The refrain from English teachers and teaching unions has generally been along the lines of this cri de coeur from Joe Walsh of NATE:
“What is proposed is essentially a downgrading of the importance of speaking and listening skills in the English GCSE.”
And where have teachers placed the blame of this devaluation of speaking and listening? Step forward Michael Gove and the DfE.
The thing is, I’m not so sure that speaking and listening has been devalued. Or at least if it has, Gove and the government aren’t entirely culpable.
When I trained, speaking and listening was a teacher-assessed element of the English GCSE, making up 20% of the overall grade in the AQA specification that my school followed (three tasks in, broadly: presenting, role-playing and discussion).
It might also be worth adding that one of the three pieces of coursework in the concurrent AQA English Literature GCSE was also allowed to be delivered orally too – that piece constituted 10% of the overall grade.
This, one would assume, is the evidence that speaking and listening once had a place of value in English. By removing it from the GCSE and letting it stand alone, we are told, Gove has devalued speaking and listening.
This suggests that the very value of speaking and listening is subjective rather than intrinsic: that its value is only based on the utility teachers and pupils see in it. When the speaking and listening assessment affects a pupil’s GCSE grade, it has value. When it doesn’t, its value is diminished. This seems to also suggest that the value of speaking and listening is ultimately decided by schools, teachers and pupils – even if that decision is provoked by curriculum changes.
But the narrative of a devalued speaking and listening is one that troubles me. It is my contention that speaking and listening may now actually be finding its rightful place in the English curriculum, and that the changes made in the past few years are actually bestowing speaking and listening a more intrinsic value.
When announcing the changes, Ofqual admitted that that there were huge inconsistencies in teacher assessment of speaking and listening. This meant that “in schools where the rules are interpreted differently, or where marking is more vulnerable to pressures from accountability measures, [pupils] may have received extra credit – when grade boundaries were set – for work of the same quality.” This seems a euphemistic way of saying that some schools inflate grades in speaking and listening assessment. Indeed, I did placements in three schools during my training year and was struck by the vast difference in interpreting the grade descriptors. It was clear in one school that they were inflating the grades to give low achieving pupils a better chance of passing the GCSE (they did this with the kindest of intentions – they cared about their pupils and truly wanted the best for them). However, this is anecdotal so we should adhere to a principle of charity and suggest that the majority of teachers weren’t cowing under the pressure of accountability measures and that they continued to approach the assessments with integrity. But even if this is the case, inconsistency is still rife. This is because, as Daisy Christodoulou has suggested:
- performance descriptors are vague and open to different interpretations;
- teacher assessment is unconsciously biased and produces unfair outcomes
So even if we think we are rigorous in applying the rules and we take pride in fair and accurate marking, the outcomes probably still aren’t actually fair and accurate.
Of course, speaking and listening in the new GCSE English curriculum is also teacher assessed. However, it seems that exam boards will be taking moderation a little more seriously than they did in the old GCSE. Whilst details are still yet to be finalised on this, it seems that they will be requesting audio-visual recordings of a sample of students from each centre. Moderation in previous qualifications meant that an examiner from your board came in once every five or so years and schools handpicked a few pupils to do a speaking and listening assessment in front of them. As a process of moderation, it was a fleeting nod to the idea of rigour.
I would hope that, with the new assessment, schools will produce audio-visual recordings of all pupils’ tasks for internal moderation. I think this will have the further benefit of bestowing a sense of formality about the speaking and listening ‘examination’, suggesting that we as schools value this strand of our subject highly. In this sense, it will still down to schools to decide on the value of speaking and listening. If we take it seriously then we are saying: this has value.
We really need to stop the hand-wringing and the ‘think of the children’ arguments like this one: “For some, these S&L activities have been proud moments, huge hurdles to overcome, only for their grades to become worthless.” Their grades are only worthless if schools and teachers don’t value them.
However, it isn’t solely down to us. I actually think that in separating the assessment from the GCSE grade, Gove, the Dfe, Ofqual – whoever you want to hold responsible – have brought out a more intrinsic value in speaking and listening. It no longer has subjective value as a component part of the GCSE. In previous qualifications, it was hidden away: once the exam certificate was printed we could see was the overall English grade. But now speaking and listening has achieved independence. Future GCSE certificates will give a grade for English (reading and writing, still enmeshed) and a separate grade for speaking and listening. Potential suitors (colleges, employers, etc.) can now see exactly how well their petitioner has demonstrated verbal communication within the context of formal education. As a former of employer in an industry of mainly customer-facing roles, I would have found this incredibly useful.
So to suggest that separating the speaking and listening from the GCSE is downgrading it seems absurd to me. I think that, finally, speaking and listening may have been elevated to its rightful place.