GCSEs: What can we learn from the English examiner reports?

One English teacher shares her response to this year's examiner reports and explains how they will influence her teaching in the coming term

Kate McCabe

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After the highs and lows of GCSE results day, there is a need to sober up. Inset will soon be upon us and the corridors will once again ring with the sound of bright-eyed youths. Like true professionals, we must consider, in the cold light of day, how we got from A to B, where we took a wrong turn and how to find the gold we're after. 

It is tempting, when things have gone well, to argue that “if it ain't broke....” But, when you dig deeper, we still need to prepare for more focus on grade 5 next year, tougher marking and higher boundaries. 

Examiner reports are vital in planning teaching for 2017-18. Above everything else, they confirm the direction we need to steer our cohorts in and the final destination. Parts of the English report made me want to stamp my feet and have a tantrum; we've all clung on to crumbs of information and made them stone, only to find out it's not really what the exam board want after all. However, two things come across in the AQA report, klaxon-level loud: “The use and abuse of subject terminology” and “the importance of connectedness.”

Subject terminology

I don't know a department in the country that hasn't squeezed in terms like "synesthesia" and "anastrophe" with faux nonchalance, as if students should have known them all along. But we've all had our wrists slapped in the examiner report. The message is loud and clear that terminology must not come at the expense of the analysis. Our goal is for students to see “writing as a construct for effect” and without this, no amount of impressive terms will compensate. It is a good reminder to keep effect front and centre of everything we do. My department will certainly build in more sentence-level tasks to really develop student responses.

However, we should also be mindful of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. An accurate term well-used does demonstrate confidence and fluency. And therein lies the problem with this first spec: accurate and appropriate is unlikely to be well-taught or learned in Year 10 and 11 alone. Key stage 3 is the time and place to ensure deep knowledge and understanding of the most basic terms (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and absolute familiarity with other key terms through deliberate, spaced, repeated revision. 


The other recommendation echoed throughout the report is that of connecting language – to effect (as mentioned above); to ideas; to themes; to context. Connecting language to ideas, themes and context is no small task. The level 4 mark responses quoted in the report (analysing why a character acts in the way she does) demonstrate a sophisticated level of emotional intelligence, an ability to read subtle clues and respond in an empathetic way. To me, this seems beyond language. At 15 and 16, students can understand meaning and depth of words and phrases, and can successfully demonstrate connectedness, but they have less of a lived life to draw upon. AQA, it would seem, would like students to tune into the big picture of human experience that literature and language can reveal. 

So how do departments tackle this, when our teens seem increasingly introspective and self-absorbed? We can start by checking students are aware of the bigger picture before zooming in on language. A series of orientating questions at the start of a text could help students position themselves more successfully inside the context, triggering a more subtle, nuanced engagement with the text. We can use the emotions of the human experience more effectively in creative writing, too, asking questions about emotions like guilt, jealousy and fear. For example: What do they look like? How would someone respond during and after?

Finally, we should use exemplar answers that clearly analyse the connections between context, ideas and language, identifying point statements. 

After unpicking examiner reports, I always have the slight sinking feeling that we are once again chasing something elusive. Nevertheless, we ignore them at our peril. We may not always agree. We may feel frustrated by the wrong turns and cul-de-sacs we have spent precious time on. But they are a map, and we should use them to guide us through the coming year.

Kate McCabe is head of faculty for English and media at St Gregory the Great Catholic School in Oxford

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Kate McCabe

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