Please @TristramHuntMP, save GCSE English Literature

Dear Tristram

I know you’re unhappy about the waste of public money on Free Schools and, I agree, that whole thing’s been a farce. Unqualified teachers are another concern, of course. But you must understand that our clients, the nation’s young people, don’t care about these things. If an unqualified teacher is doing a great job, then no student is going to worry about the lack of a certificate. And whether a school is free or constrained matters not a jot to most teenagers. No, what matters to them is fairness. It’s one value they really prize. And what they will tell you, if you ask them, is that ‘reforming’ GCSEs so they’re suddenly harder to pass is profoundly unfair. Especially if there are no obvious benefits, except for those in pursuit of pub quiz success, to be gained from mastering the ‘strengthened’ GCSE drill.

To illustrate the point in relation to English Literature, my subject, last term saw Paper 2 of the Edexcel iGCSE course. We opted for this at Thomas Cowley as a refreshing alternative to the tyranny of controlled assessments. I have to say, I was filled with pride as I watched students of all ability pouring over their exam copies of the Edexcel poetry anthology. They were clearly doing precisely as taught – reading the question closely and then carefully annotating the relevant poems before framing their responses. ‘Sonnet 116’ came up in a question about ‘close relationships’. A gift. All students wrote to the end of the exam and those who had extra time actually used it.

Despite this, though, the experience was bittersweet. More bitter than sweet, in truth.

I’m not just referring to the recent removal of the iGCSE from performance measures either – although it’s clearly outrageously unfair that those young people who already reap the benefits of private education can continue to widen the gap by pursuing these more accessible courses. No, it’s the absurdly draconian ruling that from 2017 the anthology paper must be closed book that truly depresses me.

If you haven’t prepared candidates for iGCSE you might not fully appreciate that studying 16 poems for terminal examination is, for many, quite a challenge. (You do have to study them all because the question always names at least one – as with ‘strengthened’ GCSEs.) That said, my intervention group and I, we enjoyed the experience – curiously, Macneice’s difficult ‘Prayer Before Birth’ emerged as a real favourite – maybe they identified, as students in uniform, with the ‘dragooned’ soldiers of the poem; the ‘things’ with ‘one face’. I don’t know. I just know that ‘Prayer’ resonated.

It’s not then the level of challenge represented by the new anthology material that concerns me at all. I do buy the entitlement argument, and especially after our recent very positive Edexcel experience.  It’s the closed book. The fact that students will now have to file 15 poems (18 if you go with WJEC) into their long term memories in order to pull them out and dust them off for close analysis in an exam. Many simply won’t be able to do that.

And for those who can, why should they have to waste their time when they could, for example, be reading more widely or fine-tuning their analytical skills? Where’s the logic? ‘A’ level lit students don’t have to perform such pointless feats of memory and neither do under-graduates, so why should the nation’s younger teenagers? With 80% of marks awarded for close analysis – not recall – the answer can’t have anything to do with real assessment.

Ofqual must explain to the English teaching community how close analysis will be enabled by removing entirely from view the object to be closely analysed.

Until it does, we can only conclude as English teachers that we are faced with a complete nonsense. One that has nothing at all to do with the study of English Literature as we know and love it. One that will not inject rigour, raise standards, or promote ‘world class education’. One that will instead heap entirely counter-productive and completely unnecessary pressure on teachers and their students.

Finally Tristram, I want you to trust the English teaching community when we tell you that this isn’t a plea for ‘easier’ exams. It’s a plea for intelligent assessment. It’s a plea for a GCSE that will allow us to foster the love of literature that made us English teachers. Ultimately, it’s a plea for reading rather than remembering and thus for the very soul of our subject.

Yours, Prayerfully,

Mary Meredith


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