The A level cohort
The notion that A level literature classes were ever the exclusive habitat of insatiable bibliophiles probably does belong to that branch of history termed 'Golden Age-ism'. I was one of no doubt countless grammar school boys who wanted to do English but was 'encouraged' to do maths and science because I could. Others in my school had little option but to take English as part of the 'soft' option of an arts based sixth form curriculum. There is, however, I suspect, something in the notion expressed to me by teachers and student teachers alike that AS classes in particular contain increasing numbers of students who not only don't read, but who, in fact, seem to actively dislike the pursuit.
There may be a number of reasons for this. Certainly the effort to broaden the range of subjects studied at A level heralded by Curriculum 2000 inevitably means that some students will take English as a fourth, or even fifth, option. These students, if not taking the subject under duress, will certainly not be taking it with any necessarily great enthusiasm, and may have every intention of dropping it at the end of Year 12. It may be that it is English purely in preference to an even less palatable option. Having to choose five AS subjects can put pressures on timetabling to the extent where, in fact, students are left with few options for fourth or fifth options. As ever in education, it is the illusion of choice, rather than choice itself, that has been sold to parents, teachers and students.
In addition to the attitude of the AS/A2 cohort, there is the further question of aptitude. There is ever greater encouragement for students to stay in education until eighteen, and A levels continue to be the desired choice; a lukewarm response to Tomlinson maintained this status quo and it is yet to be seem whether the introduction of the Diplomas will have any meaningful impact on learners' routes in the 14-19 phase. Many English departments, rightly in my view, will allow onto their AS courses any student achieving a C grade or above in English/Literature GCSE. There is, and always has been, a jump from pre- to post-16 study, but I would argue that teachers have become incredibly skilled at enabling students to achieve that benchmark C at GCSE. Ironically, of course, this is not achieved through cheating the coursework system, but rather through being able to successfully manipulate the so-called rigour of the external examination system. The result may well be an even steeper learning curve for some of the AS cohort. It seems to me that the introduction of 'controlled conditions' at GCSE has the potential to intensify the problem. The removal of traditional coursework is hardly like to broaden students' experience at GCSE, nor is it likely to foster independent, autonomous learning.
And what of Literature GCSE content? It is no longer possible in theory to pass GCSE without having read a whole novel, but, in practice, this happens, and certainly the majority of GCSE schemes of work are scant preparation for the (albethey reduced) demands of the reading at AS level. We've all heard the groans and seen the faces of AS students as they are asked to contemplate the reading of a text of more than 100 pages.
Factors like this mean that even for very recent graduates, the nature of the A level cohort may well be very different from either their experience or preconception. Rather than prematurely turning into 'grumpy old teachers', mourning the lack of passion for reading amongst students, some investigation of cohorts seems necessary, and may well affect student teachers' expectations as they teach A level classes.