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What is the role of English in 2023 and beyond?

The English skills developed throughout learners’ school lives play a vital role in their futures. As a subject, English opens the minds of young people, enabling them to explore ideas, opinions and attitudes and express their own, and in doing so supports the development of morally responsible, empathetic individuals who can positively influence the world around them.

As well as this intrinsic significance, achievement in English is an important steppingstone, a key to unlocking future doorways and prospects: the skills that are so deeply at the heart of English – of clear, purposeful and appropriate communication in a range of forms and media – are prized highly by employers and higher educators alike.

And yet, for many years, English as a preferred choice for A level students has been in decline. We know from our own conversations and research with schools, that many learners struggle to connect and relate to their experience of English at GCSE, unable to see its relevance and value to their lives – an issue compounded by a political focus on the employability benefits of studying STEM. For some, including those from areas of disadvantage (45%), pupils with SEND (42%), global majority groups (21%) and boys (19%), English is much less likely to be seen as appealing and accessible.

Individuals who feel the subject is irrelevant, or simply not for them, risk missing out on far more than a reading list. After all, words are a priceless currency: they emote, they express, they connect, they influence. Those who can use them well will forever be at an advantage in our interconnected world, best equipped to hear and understand others, and to be heard and understood themselves.

With A level entries declining by more than 20% since 2017, it is vital that we change the tide in opinion on this pivotal core subject. To do this, we must answer the challenge clearly given to us from our young learners: what is English for and why is that important to me?An image of an English book

Relevance, representation and modernity

Creating the right conditions for every learner to want to engage – igniting their love of language, and expanding their view of the subject – involves an objective look at inclusivity in the curriculum. Learners should be able to connect with English as a subject, identifying with their experience of the curriculum as well as encountering narratives and voices that may perhaps be unfamiliar to their immediate world.  Much thinking is already underway in English departments across the country to embed diversity and representation into the English syllabus in a meaningful way.

Joy Mbakwe, Head of English at Lilian Baylis Technical College, explains the situation as she sees it: “Classrooms around the UK are growing in both voice and diversity, empowered by the interconnectedness of our modern world and, as a consequence, an increasing number of our students feel alienated by choices being made at department level concerning what is taught.”

One of the major roles English holds is to give shape to the world around our students. Consequently, non-diverse curricula mean many students are not accessing the world as it truly is. For those who don’t feel represented themselves, it can be a small step from there towards disengagement. For those who don’t see others represented, their capacity to develop in sync with the increasingly global context of society is being limited.

Tabatha Sheehan, Head of English and Media at Westonbirt School, is one of many schools driving forward the necessary change: “We are more committed than ever to making the curriculum as representative as possible, to opening up our students’ minds to the world outside their neighbourhoods, and to ensuring that no young person feels excluded by the books we teach and read. Our curricula needs this. Our children need this. It’s time for change.”

As two-thirds of teachers seek more diverse and representative texts in the next curriculum reform and just under half of teachers more modern texts, it seems a diverse English curriculum matters now more than ever if we are to successfully help learners see English as a living, breathing, ever-evolving subject discipline.

English and employability

A future English curriculum should arguably have as one of its explicit purposes getting young people work-ready. Employer bodies have long since asked for more deliberate attention to be paid to the development of real-world employability skills through school curricula and qualifications. With almost half of employers believing young people leaving school are not work-ready, these concerns should not be dismissed.

In developing the English curricula and qualifications for the future, we would serve young people better through working with employers to identify vital content and skills, to develop real-world tasks that are systematically embedded into the English curriculum and could, in the future, feature more prominently in high stakes assessment, including a more central role for oracy. Competency in such skills could be recognised through micro-accreditation such as digital skills badges and skills passports, supplementing their grade and giving a more complete view of what every learner can do. In doing this, we can simultaneously develop and evidence key skills valued by employers and more obviously show to learners the relevance and application of what they are learning.

A curriculum for our time, and for all

A coherent and relevant English curriculum should have a logical flow that tantalises GCSE students with rich, engaging subject material that speak to how language is power and language shapes identity. In this way, a KS4 curriculum of the future could introduce learners to the fields of socio-linguistics, child language acquisition and semantics – helping open their minds to the role that language plays in shaping meaning and identity and encouraging onward study through earlier exposure to such rich subject content.

As with any subject, an English curriculum is never complete – it is always evolving and being refined. Our current students have lived through extraordinary times in the rapid development of how humankind communicates, shares information and influences each other; it is not just vital that they are literate, but that they are digitally literate if they are to shape the world around them. In our inaugural School Report launched earlier this year, 77% of teachers believed that digital literacy should be incorporated into the curriculum in the next 5-10 years. It seems only logical then that an English curriculum of the future should better reflect the digital age in which we live in terms of the texts’ learners encounter, respond to and create themselves, and indeed in the delivery of lessons and future assessment.

Key milestones in onscreen assessment, including Pearson’s International English Language Literacy GCSEs, as well as assessments in Computer Science, BTEC and mocks services, pave the way for a future readiness in assessment and have, along with huge successes, identified key learnings for the sector as we look to a future that combines the requirements of the British curriculum with the preferences and skills of today’s digital-native students and technologically-driven future workplaces.

A change that lastsDanny Cuttell

We need to recognise that a one-size fits all approach to English doesn’t suit the needs, interests and progression of all learners and that some adaptation and flex is needed to maximise every learner’s potential to thrive equitably.

Of course, systemic change isn’t something that can be done overnight. Tight budgets, time pressures and changing ministerial bodies are all obstacles that can hinder progress across the system. But we can start now, from the earliest levels up, by recognising that the implications of a real, relatable, relevant English syllabus can be meaningful and enduring for every student.

Danny Cuttell is Head of English at leading digital learning company, Pearson. Their new future-facing English Language qualification has been designed to engage and motivate students through contemporary texts, relatable modern themes and real-world writing tasks.

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