Pupils face choice of literature and language GCSEs or a generic exam with language bias
English teachers are warning of a two-tier examination system with the announcement today of new GCSEs to be introduced in 2010.
Pupils are to be offered the choice between new GCSEs in English literature and English language, or a third, generic English GCSE emphasising functional language use.
The latter exam would cater for pupils who do not want to tackle the reading involved in English literature, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) said.
The exams regulator also unveiled details of new GCSEs for information technology and maths.
The amount of literature study in the generic English GCSE has been cut from 35 to 20 per cent, with what appears to be a drastic reduction in compulsory poetry.
The QCA said the new system would give pupils a chance to keep their English options open. In theory, they would not opt for either the generic or the language and literature exams until Year 11.
For league table purposes, pupils who gained a C grade in the generic exam would be counted in the indicator of five or more A* to C-grade GCSEs including English and maths. It would also count if they gained a C in English language, but only if that pupil was also entered for English literature.
All pupils would also have to pass a new functional skills test to gain a C grade or higher in English, English language, maths or ICT.
It would not be possible to combine the generic English course with either of the other two, setting up the possibility of a division between those interested in taking the subject at A-level and the rest.
Both language and literature courses are said in the consultation paper to offer "broader" study than is possible in the generic course.
The move, which is still subject to consultation, may alarm traditionalists and seems poised to cut the numbers studying English literature, which is currently taken by three-quarters of the year group.
Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, said the danger was that two routes would open up, with less academic pupils taking the generic English test and high-flyers taking the other two.
Tim Shortis, a prominent member of the National Association for the Teaching of English and former chief A-level examiner, said the two GCSEs would be an "elite" route, but welcomed the greater focus on speaking and listening.
The generic course divides the subject into "English in the daily world" and "English in the world of the imagination". For English in the daily world, pupils will be assessed on their ability to speak and listen in standard English, including giving presentations; and reading and writing in non-fiction.
Speaking and listening tasks could include role play and storytelling; reading to include Shakespeare; and a creative writing task.
The amount of time given over to external examining in English has been cut from up to 60 to 40 per cent, with 60 per cent of the new exam now involving "controlled assessment".
For the new English language course, pupils will for the first time be asked to use and investigate non-standard English, including regional dialects, with 30 per cent of marks going to the study and speaking of spoken language.
The background document says: "Students might, for example, consider levels of formality and informality, appropriate uses of standard and non- standard English, or evaluate how borrowings from other languages or dialects have brought about recent changes in oral communication."
For English literature, pupils will study at least six texts, with emphasis placed on drawing comparisons.
A quarter of marks are given over to a controlled assessment assignment, which could include literary non-fiction, the development of the detective story or the role of women in science fiction.
Maths and ICT changes
In GCSE maths, changes are relatively minor since the last revision in 2006. But, as with English, the emphasis is placed on the functional use of the subject.
Stipulations in the current GCSE, that even foundation-level students aiming for a C grade must answer at least 6 per cent of questions on algebra and 6 per cent on unprompted multi-step problems, have been dropped.
The draft ICT criteria place a new focus on the environment, with pupils asked to consider the "legal, social and environmental issues" in the use of technology. They will also learn about risk, safety and internet security.
Jim Merrett, of Naace, the ICT teaching association, said the changes were valuable, but that teachers needed time to prepare.
By George, he's worked out the maths
When Bobby George, the veteran darts champion, visited a Kent school this week, it was not to teach pupils about the importance of fitness in sport; darts is not known for these attributes. Instead he talked maths.
Darts requires the players to be constantly doing mental arithmetic to reach the target score, he explained to pupils at Langley Park School for Boys in Beckenham. Calculating the scores and next moves involve good functional maths skills - in particular quick multiplication, subtraction and division. Photograph: Neil Turner.