Last year, we predicted zero grade 9s in GCSE English for our students. This new grade was basically going to be an A* on anabolic steroids, something only for the crème de la crème – the top 2 per cent of GCSE English students in the country. But secretly, we hoped we’d get a couple. We ended up with 14. Most pleasingly, we had an equal gender split – the national picture saw two-thirds of the top grades awarded to girls.
So how did it happen?
A challenging key stage 3 curriculum
When I arrived at the school four years ago, the key stage 3 emphasis was on engagement through fun: card sorts, pupils moving around tables, texts chosen for their accessibility. And now? Gripping, but complex novels, Shakespeare done properly – radical ideas like using his actual language – and classic poetry. Lots of opportunities to practise extended writing. The result? Greater productivity, greater quality of work and students are no longer bamboozled by the step up to GCSE English.
A faculty ethos
We spend a lot of time in faculty meetings working on subject knowledge. We all do the same books. We all teach the same topics at the same time with each year group. This means lots of discussion and sharing of ideas.
Grade boundaries – which were complete guesswork – were set high. The focus was on avoiding complacency and emphasising consistent improvement, not obsessing over target grades and mark schemes.
We cross-marked each end-of-unit assessments and mock exam. If in doubt, we marked harshly. The papers we set were slightly more challenging than exam board specimens. Pupils came out of the real thing saying the papers were easier than expected.
I didn’t have the budget to get many papers back, but I did splash out on copies of as many of the grade 9s as possible. This is what I found in the pupils’ texts:
Deep knowledge of the text
We spend a lot of time on the literature texts. No scenes are skipped. Using memory platforms, we test knowledge of key quotes, themes, ideas, characters, and context regularly. We space and interleave to revisit texts that pupils haven’t encountered recently. As a result, those that achieved grade 9s knew the texts like the back of their writing hand. They knew structural patterns. They coped with an obscure extract being chosen for the exam (AQA’s Romeo & Juliet question). They didn’t make silly factual errors.
Seamless links between context and language
Instead of generalised statements about what happened “in those days”, social, historical and cultural context was used to illuminate the writer’s word choice.
Grade 9 pupils had a nuanced appreciation of the influence of Darwinism on Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of Mr Hyde. They used autobiographical detail carefully. Significantly, they were often able to place the particular text within the context of the writer’s oeuvre, for example, applying their knowledge of Macbeth to gain a sophisticated understanding of Romeo & Juliet.
Subtle understanding of gender
The GCSE English canon may well be “too pale, too stale and too male”, but our highest-achieving pupils grasped the opportunity to show a mature understanding of the role of gender inequality over the centuries.
This went beyond vague comments on patriarchy and grappled with the complexities of gender dynamics, such as Romeo’s lament: “O sweet Juliet. Thy beauty hath made me effeminate.”
Use of evaluative verbs
Many pupils – and teachers – have found the English language evaluation questions the most challenging aspect of the new GCSE English specifications. But the most successful pupils evaluate consistently, whether or not the question prompts them. Our highest attainers analysed how a writer “ridicules”, “trivialises”, “demonises” or how a character “coerces”, “sentimentalises” or “derides” another.
Interpretations show originality and plausibility
Pupils who are encouraged to make perceptive comments when analysing language often stretch original ideas beyond breaking point.
It can be disheartening for a bright pupil to be told that an inventive interpretation is just plain wrong, but that’s something we do. The best answers I’ve seen spend more time dissecting ambiguity in language rather than making outlandish attempts at breathtaking originality.
Use of sophisticated terminology with precise explanation of effect
Anyone who’s read the examiner’s reports – or has been on an exam board feedback course – will know that sophisticated terminology has taken a kicking. The advice has been: don’t teach it to your pupils, looking up fancy Greek words just annoys the examiners. Save it for A level. Pupils end up feature spotting and never get good marks for it.
The evidence from our returned scripts – we are very much in the minority – suggests otherwise. If taught well, with an absolute insistence on exploring effect, the rewards are high. I’ve seen pupils gain impressive marks for their clear comments on the effect of the following terms: antithesis, liminality, analepsis, anadiplosis and verisimilitude.
Confident use of structural devices in the writing sections
Of course, we saw fluently crafted sentences and complex punctuation for effect. Ambitious vocabulary was judiciously and selectively chosen. But what stood out the most was how grade 9 pupils employed the structural devices they’d learned for the reading questions in their own writing. The time spent on complex repetition, narrative theory and paragraph cohesion paid off.
And yet, we may have been fortunate. We may have lucked out with an exceptional crop of pupils. We may see our results drop this summer and our grade 9s dwindle. The exam board may bare its teeth and raise its grade boundaries.
Still, I’m hopeful we’ll achieve the same number of top grades this year. At the risk of hubris, we might even do better. With an extra year of teaching the specification under our belt, we feel more confident. The pupils are working hard and seem increasingly ready – and if you have a different grade 9 story to tell, I’d very much like to hear it.
Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England