Monday, 28 March 2016

Auden and SATs

I have in front of me the snappily-titled Achieve 100 Plus: Reading Practice Questions for Key Stage 2 ('Aim higher in the National Tests) published by a company called Rising Stars and attributed to one Laura Collinson. My stepson is slogging through this book by way of preparation for the government's pedagogically dubious Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in May. Achieve 100 Plus is a collection of fiction and non-fiction prose and poetry aimed at ten-year-olds. 

Here's a particular gripe:

On page 50 we are presented with a poem attributed to W.H. Auden called ''Stop all the clocks'. It's the one many people know because of its presence in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But Auden never wrote a poem called 'Stop all the clocks'. This is the first half of the first line of 'Funeral Blues'one of two cabaret songs dashed off for the night club chanteuse Hedli Anderson, who was married to Louis Macneice. Benjamin Britten set Auden's lyrics to music. 

But Laura Collinson has her own take on the matter. Her first question runs thus:

The poem was written in response to what event?

The correct answer - but not one sought by the questioner - would be that it's not a poem but a song lyric and wasn't written in response to any event but done for money as a commission.  This would not go down well with examiners, of course, but it annoys me - more than annoys me - that such a thoughtless appropriation and distortion of  some minor Auden has been made, and that any child pointing out the truth would be penalised. And, come to think of it, why in the name of reason are we giving this sort of thing to ten-year-olds to read? 

A later question about Auden's 'Funeral Blues' runs thus::

Some of the writer's demands to stop things happening may be possible, whilst others may be impossible. Explain what the possibilities are, referring to the text in your answer.

If the wonky literacy of that doesn't make you flinch you're probably employed as a copy editor or proof-reader at Rising Star. A few pages later we are given an extract from Auden's 'Night Mail' (mistitled 'Night mail'). I assume the Estate has granted copyright clearance (although it's disappointing to see 'Night Mail' appear in a mutilated form and with no context-setting introduction explaining that it was another commission, this time to accompany a Post Office Film Unit documentary of the same name. Collinson's glossary insists that Beattock (as in 'Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb / The gradients against her  but she's on time') is the name of a village in Scotland. This may be the case, but in Auden's commentary it refers only to a steep incline on the West Coast main line (which appears on screen when the lines are uttered), some ten miles from the village after which it is named. Does this matter? Only if truth and accuracy matter.

The other texts included in the Rising Star anthology are uneven in quality and incoherent in content - we have an extract from Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper of Hamlin', some verses by Heaney and John Claire, two extracts from Malorie Blackman's novel Pig Heart Boy; there's something about Anne Frank and a poem by Adrian Henri about Adrian Henri. One of the passages is taken from Reader's Digest and another written by the telly presenter Carol Voorderman. The range and quality of questions and tasks based on this odd assortment of texts is dull and dispiriting, and reminded me of an anonymous verse prompted by Wordsworth's 'To the Cuckoo':

"O cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird?
   Or just a wandering voice?"
State the alternative preferred
   With reasons for your choice.

I can think of no more effective or efficient way of putting children off reading for pleasure for the rest of their lives than the approach encouraged by Her Majesty's Government. Related to the subject of SATs and testing in general, the poet Michael Rosen has been furiously eloquent in his assault on the governments so called SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests Enjoy a recent a recent blog of his here, and get angry.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, David.There are other horrors in this booklet. The comprehension on Anne Frank is absurd. For many children (including mine) it may well be a first introduction to the Holocaust. The piece in question are the programme or catalogue notes for an exhibition, which of course is not present in the booklet. Most of the terms are not explained and even when they are there are still more questions than answers. Places like 'Auschwitz-Birkenau' go unreferenced. As one insight into the macabre absurdity of it, my son said, 'Why did the police take them away?' Legitimate question not answered by the text, the answer being 'Because they were Jews.' is not deducible, or inducible from the text itself.

    Much less horrific but equally absurd is also I think (from memory) in this booklet or another one like it, where the questions about a Robert Louis Stevenson poem talk of the 'poet' being in the poem, when clearly the 'I' of the poem is a child. It's bad enough being ignorant of how poems work, but imposing your ignorance on 1000s of children, teachers and parents is worse than tiresome.