'Formulaic' GCSEs putting students off English A levels

Subject association says new English GCSEs aren't tougher and instead blames content for decline in A-level entries

Catherine Lough

The decline in English A-level entries isn't down to tougher GCSEs - it's down to the 'mechanistic' content, says one subject association

Uninspiring English GCSEs are putting students off from continuing with the subject at A level, according to a leading subject association.

“The questions at GCSE are more mechanistic and formulaic, so the teaching is more formulaic, and that just doesn’t appeal to the kids who would have liked English, and the independence and imagination it offered,” Peter Thomas, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), told Tes.

Others have also blamed reformed GCSEs for falling entries in A-level English – but have focused on the extra challenge offered by the revised qualifications for 16-year-olds. 

Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, argued that revised GCSEs, intentionally designed by the government to be tougher, have put off “weaker candidates” from A-level study.

Exam results: More top grades predicted for English and maths A level

Insight: A-level English is under threat. Can we save it?

News: A-level entries: English down and sciences up

NATE agreed that GCSE changes had led to fewer A-level entries but it had a very different interpretation as to why. 

Mr Thomas claimed it was a “myth” that the reformed English GCSEs were more difficult. “I dispute that they are more rigorous, or tougher,” he said. “It’s government hype.”

New English GCSE 'is a weaker curriculum'

Provisional figures from Ofqual show entries for A levels in English were 67,865 in 2018 but fell to less than 59,000 this year.

But Mr Thomas said the idea that new GCSEs in the subject were more demanding was a “legacy from Michael Gove” and argued that fewer pupils were taking the subject on to A level because of the limited scope for creativity in the revised exams.

He said that in some ways the new qualifications constituted a “weaker curriculum” because they had lost some aspects of the previous English GCSEs. Mr Thomas cited the loss of the study of spoken language – a controlled assessment where pupils made transcripts to analyse spoken texts – as well as the “axing” of poetry from other cultures in literature,

“The content is increasingly corralled around the English canon,” he said.

Mr Thomas also argued that the use of comparable outcomes, which mean the proportion of grades awarded remain largely consistent year-on-year, “undermines government rhetoric about how rigorous the new exams are”.

Headteachers also warned that the content of English language does not allow pupils to show their full potential.

Julie McCulloch, policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders, told Tes that the revised content of English language GCSE failed to assess pupils’  “pragmatic day-to-day abilities in the language”.


Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

Latest stories