'The new GCSE English exams are a fine example of "going off half-cocked"'

Taking stock of how the great GCSE experiment has played out, one English teacher worries that the new exams will not be accessible to many of his students

Phil Brown

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With days left for voters to make their choice about the country’s future, one of the key policy battlegrounds is education.

As this summer sees the first set of Michael Gove’s new-style terminal exams being sat, we have a key opportunity to take stock of how the great GCSE experiment has played out over the past seven years.

The most noticeable change to GCSE examinations is the move away from the familiar letter-grading system of A*-U, in favour of the numerical 9-1 grades.

From the perspective of teachers and school leaders, this was a highly disruptive move for a number of reasons. The main cause for concern about the new GCSE grading system is just how little information was made available to us about how it would work.

The days of being able to say "this would get you a D, whereas this is what you need for a C" are over – at least for now.

Deciphering results

Piecemeal glimpses of sample answers and advice from moderators began to find its way to schools, but not until way after centres had already started teaching the courses, using their best intuitions and speculation about what the new hurriedly-written specifications seemed to be insinuating.

Grade predictions in this environment are a shot in the dark, and we still have very limited knowledge about what this summer’s outcomes will be.

In practice, the move towards the 9-1 system has felt like a shambles from start to finish.

Time may prove it to have been a masterstroke in educational reform, but its only real use to me, at present, is if I need to provide an example for one of my classes as to what the phrase "going off half-cocked" means.

Just as disruptive as the change in grading system has been the move away from coursework and towards GCSEs which are based entirely on terminal examinations.

As an English teacher, I can’t hide my enthusiasm for anything which shifts some of the marking workload onto someone else. The previous system of controlled assessment was an unwieldy albatross which had a range of educationally damaging consequences for teachers and students.

For many reasons, it can certainly be argued that a move towards terminal examinations has its advantages.

The reliance on the teacher revisiting texts and concepts several times over the course of the year to "keep it fresh" and consolidate understanding can lead to some excellent classroom practice.

But the issue of end-of-year exam stress can be a massive factor and the fact that 16-year-olds will now be sitting every one of their most important assessments during a six-week window of their mid-teens can lead to serious concerns about the mental wellbeing of some students.

Out of touch

Beyond this, we also have to ask ourselves how useful public examinations are in gauging the performance of students in the modern world.

The modern workplace is a collaborative environment in which we are constantly using technology to augment our own knowledge and understanding while facing complex tasks. It seems that while the current GCSEs are certainly rigorous, they bear very little relation to the demands of the outside world.

The removal of American fiction and increasing the importance of 19th-century British literature in both the English literature and the English language paper has been a key development.

The language paper is now far more focused on students’ abilities to engage with prose extracts and respond to both Victorian and modern literary styles.

I have found this to be a profound shift in skill sets required from students. The benefits are that the literature and language papers now seem far more mutually compatible and I can easily teach skills for one of them which are directly transferable to the other.

There are, of course, significant concerns about what this type of curriculum does to the range of texts and authors a student is likely to encounter.

With every increased emphasis on "the classics" of British literature, the greater the weighting we are likely to find towards the white male writers who have dominated mainstream literary culture until relatively recently.

A fair chance

Finally, one other seismic shift in the new GCSE papers has been dropping "core" examination – a shorter and more accessible paper which weaker students can sit, in which they cannot score higher than a C.

The reason for scrapping this aspect of the examinations is understandable – it can sometimes be damaging to put a "cap" on students’ achievements.

It can also be frustrating for teachers who have to prepare a class for examinations knowing that there is a mixture of "core" and "extended" students in the room with very different requirements.

As has been established, however, the new GCSE examinations are challenging documents which, even for our strongest students, are proving difficult.

Our weakest students, frankly, do not stand a chance of accessing the new tests.

Many students with heavy special educational needs are highly underserved by the new-style papers and will spend the rest of their lives viewing English as the subject that made them sit in a silent hall for hours, staring at indecipherable questions. 

Phil Brown is a writer and English teacher from South London

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