Essex: Struggling with Shakespeare and English lessons at school? This might help

It might be a tad too late for pupils sitting exams this summer, but a new textbook on the international GCSE English course is timed perfectly for the next batch of students. Its author has a good old chinwag with Steven Russell and puts the education world to rights

Peter Inson knows his stuff. “Have a look at page 168,” he suggests, after I tell him about a teenage relative being turned off English forever because of bad school experiences – the usual story of being given impenetrable poetry to decipher and some baffling Shakespeare to decode. “There’s an extract from Wind in the Willows, and there’s a poem from John Keats called To a Cat. I love both those. There’s a commentary. See if that helps.”

The former head teacher is convinced most pupils – and adults too – can draw more joy, knowledge and inspiration from language and literature if helped in the right way.

He uses the analogy of a car engine to illustrate how we can better understand our native tongue and its twists and turns. Take the language apart, he suggests, as one would dismantle an engine. By learning what each component is and how it works, we should see the fog lifting. Words once troublesome can be brought under control.

“You can teach the formal content without being an old-fashioned bore,” chuckles Peter, who lives on Mersea Island, near Colchester.

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He knows what it’s like, having failed English literature at school. Through private study he gained a degree in English from London University and then taught the subject for 30 years.

Peter worked as an examiner for O-level exams and then A-levels, and is now a writer and an examiner for the International Baccalaureate. Articles he’s written about education have appeared in the national media and he’s written books, too.

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His latest publication is Heinemann IGCSE English – First Language. He’s pulled together material from 12 countries and five continents to help pupils with the latest Cambridge International Examinations syllabus.

Peter says he’s “tried very hard to engage students in an understanding of what they are expected to do and to help them appreciate the importance of high standards with their English as a prerequisite of so much else”.

His ideas to help young people write and speak clearly include, for instance, playing a game based on the BBC radio show Just a Minute and pupils describing to classmates how to tie laces. Pretending to be a newspaper editor, meanwhile, highlights the importance of checking work and punctuation.

The intriguing story of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart is used to show the importance of “character” in narrative, and among the other aspects covered are the techniques writers use, getting an audience to respond, using humour, building dramatic tension and looking at the tricks of advertising.

It even shows how the old Crosby, Stills & Nash song Love the One You’re With – “and if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with” – can be used in a piece of writing!

So for those of us who have never heard of the IGCSE, what’s it all about?

Peter came across the qualification in 1999. “The IGCSE is taught around the world and feeds into A-levels or the International Baccalaureate. I taught it for five years in Switzerland, so I’m reasonably familiar with it.”

He believes it’s growing in popularity, with a number of schools in this country taking it up or considering doing so, “partly, of course, because it’s less likely to fall under the influences of secretaries of state for education”. It’s garnering a reputation as the most robust successor to the O-level, he adds.

Until last June, only independent schools were able to offer IGCSEs in English, maths, science, and information and communication technology. Then ministers lifted the restrictions stopping state schools offering IGCSEs, saying head teachers should have power to choose the qualifications that best met the needs of their students.

The Manchester Grammar School says the International GCSE provides “a more testing and relevant challenge”, and Peter agrees it’s more rigorous than the traditional GCSE – certainly for the subject, English, he knows about.

“It is harder. There are more explicit demands, particularly when it comes to productive writing. They have to sit down and the only way they can show their skills as a writer is by starting from scratch with a piece of paper. If they haven’t got it between their ears, then it’s too late.”

As an examiner for the International Baccalaureate, Peter assesses candidates’ abilities to understand and appreciate English literature and write about it effectively. Scripts come from across the globe, so he sees how well Austrians, South Koreans, Americans and others are writing.

And how does the UK compare?

“I don’t see enough to make that kind of call. There are certain stylised things that you notice about Americans’ writing – they’re rather self-conscious and rather plodding with their introductory paragraphs. But people from all over the place are capable of surprising and delighting an examiner. I’ve found brilliance and dullness in all sorts of places.

“That’s what nice. When you get hold of a really good essay it reads so easily. Kids don’t realise they’ve got to check their work. The poor ones don’t realise there are things they could do to help themselves, and part of my teaching is to show them these things.”

He marked papers for the last O-level exam in 1987. “The chief examiner at London used to say ‘Bear in mind that, if you award a pass mark, this 16-year-old should expect to be able to walk into a solicitor’s office, be given a set of notes by a solicitor and turn them into a good letter.’ I don’t think many could do that now.”

There are indeed tales of PhD students unable to write proper sentences and ex-pupils who cannot produce a decent CV. “If you cannot construct sentences properly, you cannot communicate.”

Isn’t there a risk, though, that people like Peter and me are simply middle-aged-ish and of our generation – and that younger people manage to communicate in a way they find acceptable but that is to us anathema?

“I think you’re right to raise this. But we do have an obligation to help prepare the young for their future as best we can, while acknowledging that we live in a world of Twitter and Facebook . . . but also a world of instant gratification, which is imposed on them when they’re very young: ‘you want it now, you deserve it now, you demand it now.’

“That sort of attitude has resulted in the financial crisis that we’re struggling with. So I’m not afraid to stand out for standards if I can justify them – and justify them to the youngsters.”

Peter reckons there’s evidence of a growing divide between independent and state schools. The former often have a confidence about the demands they make of their students, he says.

Acknowledging he’s climbing onto one of his hobby-horses, he says most decent parents simply want to keep their children away from youngsters whose parents have failed to bring them up ready for school. By the time children and families start becoming troublesome for schools, the problem has been going on too long, Peter argues. “We need to expect similar standards of behaviour from parents as we do of foster couples and adoptive parents.”

Children spend roughly four times as much time under the influence or control of their parents – in theory – as they do in school. “Who has the biggest influence, on paper?”

Sadly, in many people’s eyes, schools are a child-minding service. “Up until we have some politicians who deal with parenting, we are not going to change things massively.”

Schools, meanwhile, are simply trying to deal with what society presents them with. “(State) Schools are unfortunate because politicians are their paymasters and can control what’s going on.”

In Switzerland, he says, virtually no-one sends their child to an independent school because the state ones are so efficient.

“What have we done in my lifetime to address the problem of parents who don’t bother, or who resent it when other people expect them to bother?”

Peter is also concerned by the effect of advertising on youngsters, encouraging them to urge their parents to buy certain things, and is particularly worried about the sexualisation of children, “who are exposed to material which they learn to laugh at because people around them are laughing, but their understanding is partial”.

By making children feel they’re part of the adult world, they can be expected to spend.

“My line has always been that my generation has been responsible for making growing-up more difficult for young people.” And behind that, he says, is the quest to make money.

“We’re expecting people to be efficient consumers of things rather than efficient producers of things, and we’ve lost sight of the fact there are some things you can produce – like a functioning family – that you can’t put a monetary value on.”

n IGCSE English – First Language student book, with ExamCafe CD-Rom for revision, is published by Heinemann at �18.99. Material for teachers is also available.

• Peter Inson grew up in Essex

• He trained as an agriculturalist

• Then he became an English teacher

• For three years he was the headmaster of a comprehensive school in west London

• He taught in state schools for 22 years before working in the independent sector

• This period included a five-year spell teaching at an international boarding school in Switzerland

• Peter says he’s long had sympathy with teenagers who, he feels, face unreasonable pressure to succeed early in life

• A novel he wrote – dunno – is a story about a troubled teenager

• It won an Arts Council Award in 2005

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