Everyone can see that the English GCSE isn’t working. In the summer of 2016, just over 40 per cent of students failed to achieve a grade C or above in GCSE English – a total of 205,000 individuals. The vast majority of those will have been young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The key problem is that the GCSE syllabus is poorly designed. It’s a literature-based course designed for people who like fiction. It’s a preparation for the A-level English exam, which is in turn a preparation for studying a degree in English at university.
Most worryingly, it clearly works best for those who are from more affluent backgrounds. Only about a third of pupils on free school meals achieve five grade A-Cs including English at GCSE. In 2014-15, only 41 per cent of students in receipt of free school meals attained GCSE English and maths by age 19 compared to 68 per cent of their more advantaged peers.
The solution: applied English?
Further education colleges are now full of students from disadvantaged backgrounds retaking their English GCSE, with generally very poor results. In 2016, only 19 per cent succeeded.
Many students – at least 40 per cent of the total cohort - want to be electricians, musicians, plumbers, caterers, engineers, hairdressers, chefs, carers, construction workers, IT technicians, performers, surveyors, designers. They want to earn a living wage and aspire to work in practical, hands-on occupations. They don't enjoy reading literary texts and the ability to analyse fiction is not a key skill they need for success. Most of them enjoy fiction – TV dramas, films, computer games – but not books. They communicate in writing frequently, but don’t write lengthy pieces. For them, the current GCSE English specification is about as much use as a spanner made out of cardboard. It offers itself as a vital tool, but is made of completely the wrong material.
Instead they need a GCSE in applied English. The specification would no longer be the study of English literature, but the study of how language in its many forms is used to inform, influence and persuade in the modern world. Two key elements would be interwoven throughout the syllabus: the use of language in the context of business and work, and the use of language in the context of being a consumer and a citizen.
Its principal aim would be preparation for being a responsible and capable employee in a modern workplace, developing relevant language and communication skills needed in adult life.
A wide range of employers from different industry sectors should be consulted about its design and content and be involved in endorsing the new qualification. It would therefore have a greater chance of being embraced as a relevant, important core qualification.
The new applied English GCSE would take its place alongside the current version as an alternative for those who were clearly not suited to the literature-based syllabus we now have. I suspect, over time, it would become a really attractive option for those thousands of young people who currently have to force themselves through a course which really doesn't play to their strengths. Most further education colleges would introduce it immediately as a far better route for many of those students required to re-sit GCSE English.
At last, we would have an English GCSE that is fit for the 40 per cent who struggle with the current version. A course that promotes employability, productivity and social mobility.
And why stop at English? GCSE maths is just as much in need of a radical transformation.
Andy Forbes is principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London