Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Tram timetable arrives in A-level

There was too much emphasis on functionality, said Mrs McCabe

A tram timetable is being studied as part of an A-level English syllabus, sparking claims of dumbing down.

Leading head teacher Bernice McCabe said the AQA exam board had also considered including a bus pass in its English Language and Literature exam.

The head of the private North London Collegiate School warned an emphasis on skills could lead to pupil's "cultural and intellectual impoverishment".

The AQA said candidates studied a range of literary and non-literary texts.

We don't do any favours by dumbing things down and making their lessons 'relevant'
Bernice McCabe
Headmistress of North London Collegiate School

Mrs McCabe made the claim at a residential seminar for teachers at the Prince's Teaching Institute in Crewe.

She said teachers were being thwarted by "the pervasive philosphy that the over-riding purpose of education is to enhance the competitiveness of the nation".

One of the government's key educational pledges is to massively improve the basic skills of the nation so that Britain can maintain its place in the global economy.

She said exams watchdog the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said "nothing about what children should be learning."

"But it is indicative that the current specifications for an AS paper in English Language and Literature should include a railway timetable and that a chief examiner should be seriously discussing with teachers the merits of putting a bus pass in the same anthology.

"By far the most serious consequence of this emphasis on functionality in education policy is that it may lead to the cultural and intellectual impoverishment of a generation of school children."

The best teaching was about communicating with enthusiasm what lies at the heart of the subject, she said.

'Dickens studied too'

She added that pupils were encouraged by being challenged and said: "We don't do any favours by dumbing things down and making their lessons 'relevant'".

"By having high expectations and ensuring that all pupils, irrespective of their backgrounds, are taught the aspects of our subjects that we most value rather than those that are immediately accessible," Mrs McCabe added.

An AQA spokeswoman said the inclusion of the Manchester Metrolink Tram Guide in one of the units A-level students study in their first year had been taken out of context.

She said it appeared in an anthology of 30 texts entitled Travel, Transport and Locomotion which accompanied a unit on language and literature study.

"The purpose of the unit is to allow candidates to study, via the anthology, a range of thematically linked spoken and written texts."

Candidates studied a variety of texts, with different purposes that are written at different times.

These covered the three major literary genres and a range of non-literary texts.

"The tram guide is just one of the non-literary texts and amongst the literary texts are pieces by Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens," she added.

However, the board recently launched an English version of the international Baccalaureate which it promises ensures students get a "broader more rounded education".

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