GCSE reforms write new script for English literature

27th March 2015 at 00:00
Expert claims schools will give it priority over language

Schools will divert resources from English language to English literature to optimise their performance after GCSE and league table reforms, an expert has predicted.

Under the existing accountability regime, English language GCSE results are all-important for official judgements on schools, whereas English literature makes much less difference to the main GCSE performance indicator or the government's English Baccalaureate (EBac) measure.

But Paul Clayton, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, believes the situation could shortly be reversed, with English language becoming the "also-ran".

The two English subjects will be given parity from 2016 under the EBac and the new main Progress 8 performance measure. Reformed GCSEs, to be sat from 2017, will provide further incentive for schools to concentrate on English literature in order to climb the league tables, according to Mr Clayton.

He points to the new requirement for technical accuracy, with marks specifically allotted for using "a range of vocabulary and sentence structures" and "accurate spelling and punctuation". These will make up only 5 per cent of marks in English literature but a fifth in the new English language GCSE.

"Technical accuracy is an area where students can fall down, so that could make it even more attractive to schools to really push students through English literature," Mr Clayton said.

The literature exam will include texts that can be studied in advance, while the language exam will involve only unseen texts - another potential disincentive for schools, he added.

Ofqual has also said that in each subject the same percentage of students who achieved a grade C in the old GCSEs will be given a grade 4 under the new system. Last year, 76 per cent of English literature candidates achieved that benchmark, compared with less than 62 per cent in EnglishEnglish language.

Mr Clayton said that although he expected English teachers would want to give equal weight to both subjects, school leaders might think differently. "Where you might be needing to think a bit more strategically about positioning yourself in the league tables, then you may well think, `Hang on a minute, where we've got a set who struggle for English language, wouldn't it be more appropriate for them to really put in extra hours on English literature?'."

Rob Campbell, principal of Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire and an English teacher, said he could see the logic in focusing more resources on literature and had heard of headteachers planning to drop English language in Year 11.

"I try and do what's best for students - a balanced reasonable approach," he said. "You could tactically [focus] on whatever literature text is being taught, uncluttered by the preparation for English language, particularly when the result counts double [in Progress 8]. But that's not something we would entertain."

The predictions about English literature come less than two years after high-profile campaigners including Robert Harris, Michael Morpurgo and A C Grayling voiced fears that the subject would be downgraded under accountability reforms. In response, the Department for Education said it wanted to "place the classics of English literature at the heart of lessons" and added that it would be given league-table parity.

But now it is English language that could find itself at a disadvantage, according to Mr Clayton. "If these measures were introduced to try and reduce the opportunities for `gaming' the system, they have just created a different set of rules and a different set of games," he said.

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