'Too easy' GCSE dropped

17th October 1997 at 01:00
The best English literature students at Ampleforth College sit an exam set by their teachers. It aims to be more challenging than traditional syllabuses. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

One of Britain's top public schools admitted this week that it had abandoned the English literature GCSE because pupils found it too easy.

Boys at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire now study a "traditional" syllabus and sit an examination set by their own teachers instead, which includes Chaucer and 18th-century novelists. The school said it had talked to other independent schools considering a similar move.

The revelation came days after members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference called for the abolition of GCSEs, claiming they were an "inadequate preparation" for A-levels and beyond.

Andrew Carter, head of English at the Pounds 4,500-a-term Roman Catholic school, said staff decided to jettison the English literature GCSE, after noticing that the brightest pupils were not being stretched and the same texts were recurring on the syllabus year after year.

Mr Carter said: "Dickens's Great Expectations was the only substantial text on the syllabus and there was one Shakespeare play, usually Macbeth. The choice of poets was frankly disappointing.

"We devised a syllabus which enables us to teach five substantial texts. We have brought back Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the 18th-century novels and plays such as Shakespeare's Othello and The Taming of the Shrew. We also extended the choice of poets to include Blake, Coleridge and Dylan Thomas.

"We felt that the GCSE syllabus was far too prescriptive. It was not stretching the pupils and it was boring for the teachers. We felt the boys deserved better.

"We tried several examination boards with a view to changing, but they were all very similar.

"However, we do understand that not all schools are able to replace texts every year, and that may be a reason why the GCSE syllabus remains largely unchanged."

Pupils do 75 per cent coursework for the Ampleforth literature certificate, with a two-and-a-half hour examination for the remaining quarter of the marks. The papers are marked by teachers, then sent away for moderation by Dr Richard Palmer, an English teacher and an HMC schools inspector.

In his report on last summer's candidates, Dr Palmer concluded: "Much of what I read was of A-level quality. The quality and sheer quantity of work this cohort achieved is far superior to that required by normal GCSE literature students."

He said: "Ampleforth have been very brave. They have resuscitated the ethos of the old AO-level of the 1980s in its style, maturity and sophistication of approach, allowing pupils to explore literature."

Initially just 46 of the most able pupils took the Ampleforth exam - the rest of the boys sat the GCSE - but all 100 pupils will sit it from this year.

The examination is graded similarly to A-levels, with pupils gaining grades A to E. Exceptional candidates are awarded distinctions, but only a handful of boys have achieved this level.

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