Weekend read: Much ado about English examiners, teachers and A-level entries

Amid warnings of an emerging "crisis" in English, we explore how the subject is being hit by recruitment problems, grading concerns and a feared decline in popularity.

Eleanor Busby

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The spotlight on the newly reformed English GCSE shone bright this year – especially as it was one of only two subjects to be graded under the new numerical 9 to 1 scale this summer.

Concern among teachers and heads about the new qualification is, in many cases, only intensifying.  

This week, Tes highlighted the high number of schools that have seen many pupils’ marks jump up significantly following re-marks, which appears to be fuelling even more anxieties about the consistency and quality of marking.

On top of the marking concerns, there are signs of an emerging shortage of English teachers, which experts are describing as a "crisis".

And, adding to the woes of those who teach the subject, it appears that curriculum changes may be deterring pupils from studying English beyond GCSE level.

Recruitment problems

The government hasn’t formally recognised English as a shortage subject – but recruitment and subject experts say that it is becoming harder to get qualified teachers of it into the classroom.

Professor John Howson, teacher recruitment expert, has been warning about this for years. “The government underestimated the number of English teacher training places needed a couple of years ago,” he says.

Now new analysis by Howson shows that the number of adverts posted by schools for English teachers has surged by 20 per cent in the first 10 months of 2017, compared with the first 10 months of 2016.

Schools in certain areas of the country – such as London and the Home Counties – are feeling the pressure. Howson thinks recruitment will become even more challenging in these areas in the near future, in line with the expected rise in secondary pupil numbers.

Last month, the Department for Education increased the bursaries for English teachers from £9,000 for those with First or 2:1 degrees in the current academic year to £15,000 next year. It was a move that John Yandell, subject leader of the English PGCE at the UCL Institute of Education, calls “a late recognition that we have a crisis on our hands".

But Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer In English Education at King's College London, worries it doesn’t go far enough. “The government has tentatively said it [recruitment] is tricky,” she says. “But there is not enough recognition as they are not acknowledging that English is a shortage subject, and they should do.”

It is not only growing secondary pupil numbers that could drive up the demand. More teachers are needed to help with resits for pupils who miss out on a grade 4 at GCSE.

In addition, more pupils are taking English literature – which is still not compulsory – at GCSE than they did before. This year, the number of entries went up by 48 per cent. Progress 8, the government’s new accountability measure, is likely to have fuelled the rise, as it double weights English if a student takes both language and literature – and the highest grade counts.

Some critics claim that it has been easier to cover up the English teacher shortages, because some schools allow teachers without a degree in the subject to teach it.

'Increasingly difficult'

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says he is starting to hear about recruitment problems.

“It used to be the case that with English teachers – like PE teachers and history teachers – you used to be able to get a field together when recruiting. I think it is increasingly difficult now to get English teachers," he says.

Helena Marsh, executive principal of Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire, has noticed a drop in the number of applicants for English teachers. “It is more like a handful if you are lucky now,” she says. “And leadership roles are becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain.”

But John Yandell, subject leader of the English PGCE at the UCL Institute of Education, argues that “the major part of the problem is retention”, rather than recruitment.  

“It is to do with the kind of pressures that teachers are under. That’s where questions of workload and forms of accountability are probably as important as pay,” he argues.

This pressure may come from the fact that schools are not only judged on their GCSE English results under Progress 8, but also the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and percentage of pupils that achieve grades 9 to 5 in English and maths.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult to retain department heads, says Mick Connell, from the National Association of Teaching English. “People are on the run because they are not wanting to be in the firing line,” he says.  

'Less enjoyable' for pupils

Rising accountability pressures are likely to have played a role, but Marsh says the narrowing of the curriculum – such as the removal of diverse subjects and texts in the new GCSE – may have also made it “less accessible and potentially less enjoyable” to teachers and students.

It could be too early to say whether the tougher GCSE has deterred pupils from taking the subject to A-level – which the Mathematical Association suggests has happened with the maths GCSE.

But the harder exam – as well as the fact that it is more difficult for a pupil to get a grade 9 in English than an A* in other subjects – may negatively affect entries, experts say.

And some pupils who wished to study the subject at A level may have missed out on a sixth form place because of a low GCSE mark. The Grammar School Heads’ Association has noted the large number of students’ grades increasing on re-mark has had “serious implications for admissions”.

Barton believes the number of A-level entries will drop. “As an English teacher and someone who has been fighting on behalf of it over the years, it is a source of sadness,” he says.

But, like many in the profession, the ASCL general secretary doesn’t think the new GCSE is solely to blame. After all, the decline in A-level take-up had begun before the reformed GCSE came in.

This summer, A-level entries for English dropped by 11.1 per cent for English language and literature, 10.2 per cent for language and 4.7 per cent by literature.

The decoupling of AS levels from A-levels is likely to have led to fewer students taking English as their fourth subject – and then deciding to take it onto to A level once they began studying it.

Stem focus 'misdirected'?

Increasingly, students faced with a toughening jobs market are thinking about which subjects to study at university that are most likely to get them a job – which could also be filtering down to A-level English take-up.

And the focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) – rather than the arts – could well have played a part. Michael Bond, vice-principal education of the private Berkhamsted schools group, has seen a lower take-up of English at A-level, and he argues that this is connected to the government drive for students to study Stem subjects.

“One point that may be worth consideration is whether the government’s focus on Stem subjects is actually prophetic or misdirected,” he says.

If the focus on increasing A-level take-up of Stem subjects – as well as the number of Stem teachers – becomes too narrow, then English could find itself with even greater problems.

Recruitment of English teachers – and therefore experienced examiners – will become even more difficult if fewer young people take it at A level and then move on to study the subject at degree level.

“What we might be seeing is the beginning of a longer-term period in which it becomes difficult to recruit people to one of the most important subjects,” Barton warns.

Marking concerns

No discussion of the challenges facing the teaching of English could be complete without addressing widespread concerns around exam marking. 

One headteacher in a secondary school in Sheffield, who wishes to remain anonymous, had 45 pupils’ English GCSE grades re-marked – of which 30 resulted in upgrades. He believes that the problem boils down to a lack of experienced and quality English examiners in the system.

William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, a group of leading independent schools, says large-scale concerns about the English GCSE – in particular AQA’s qualification – and a seemingly high proportion of regrades needs to be addressed.

Despite theses concerns, it is understood that, this year, schools have in fact asked for a smaller proportion of AQA GCSE English results to be reviewed than in the previous two years.

However, this possibly comes down to budgetary pressures. It stands to reason that cash-strapped state schools – even those that have noticed discrepancies in their marks – may be less inclined to stretch their budgets further by requesting reviews as the pressures worsen.

At this stage, the exact proportion of successful challenges across the country is unknown. But Richardson is expecting “a big spike” for GCSE English, which he argues has been “deficiently marked”.

“These rumours are sufficiently widespread for Ofqual to say something about this exam,” he adds. “It has been sapping confidence in this qualification among people in the education community.”

Refuted claims

Before the GCSEs and A levels were sat in the summer, exam board AQA called on PhD and PGCE students to mark English exams which caused concern to some in the profession.

Once the exams were over, it is understood that AQA English examiners were offered up to double the standard fee to take on additional scripts late in the marking cycle this year.

But AQA refutes claims that it struggled to get papers marked on time or had a shortage of examiners – and says it found no major issues with the marking of the GCSE.

This year’s grade changes could be because of a range of factors, AQA suggests, such as schools targeting a broader range of grade boundaries for reviews because of new accountability measures. The exam board also points out that two examiners are more likely to have differences in academic judgement in English than in other subjects with more clear-cut exam questions and answers.

Even with these assurances from exam boards, a lack of confidence around English remains. And if the number of experienced subject teachers does drop, as experts predict, the concerns are likely to grow even bigger.

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