Why I love the new English GCSE: a controversial romance

The new English GCSE might not be perfect, but there are some positives, says this English teacher

Sana Master

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For two years we've been discussing the difficulties of the new English GCSE. I agree that there is much to criticise. However, despite the demands of the new course, the difficulties and the uncertainties, the crying to sleep as we contemplate trying to teach that structure question again tomorrow, I love this new GCSE. Here are my reasons why:

1. Teaching modern fiction

Hurrah, huzzah and hallelujah! We have a fiction paper that allows us to introduce an incredible range of some of the finest 20th and 21st century literature to students.

Worthy though the canonical texts of the English literature GCSE specifications are, some of the writers from the past two centuries are worthy compeers and the language paper enables us to celebrate them. It also means we can introduce students to writing from different cultures, a feature the literature specification is particularly short on.

The great thing about the extracts you select as part of your planning is that they are frequently engaging snapshots of the books, which have the power to hook in an increasingly literature-resistant audience – one that isn't always interested in much beyond 140 characters accompanied by doggie-face filters. Praise be.

2. Teaching an entire Shakespeare text

For some, this may not seem like an advantage. Shakespeare is tough, his language dense and his ideas complex and multi-layered.

However, beyond those usual challenges, being able to teach an entire Shakespeare play bedded into its context and with elements of modern literary criticism is a joy that previously we have not had at GCSE.

In the past, many students have left secondary education with no real understanding of why Shakespeare is still relevant. This has frequently been down to the rushed excerpt-based approach that has been prevalent in our classrooms. Now, we finally have the time to truly engage with and enjoy Shakespeare.

3. I finally feel like I'm really teaching my subject

Having taught English for 13 years now, I've been through three specification changes.

I will hold my hands up and say that for the first few years, I had little real idea of how the whole course pieced together. What I did know was that, in the past, we spent a disproportionate amount of time on 20 per cent of the course (coursework) and then frantically tried to cram in the remaining 80 per cent any which way we could. 

Controlled assessment and its attendant horrors came next. Nothing of analysis, nothing of the texts apart from the bits they needed for their essays and no real contextualisation that encouraged students to recognise the importance of literature and the role it plays in reflecting society. The new-not-new drive towards a stronger knowledge-based curriculum means I can teach a text in its entirety, a privilege usually reserved for A level.

The new English GCSE demands a lot from teachers and students, but I believe it gives back much more. For the students to succeed, the teacher has to teach both content and skills – and they have to teach them well. There is no hiding with these new qualifications. They have to engage. 

For too many years it felt as though many students sleepwalked through their English GCSE, got their C grade and left with a soul untouched by the incredible texts they were exposed to. A tragedy.

By closing the loopholes that stripped the subject to its component parts, teaching it has become more challenging than ever, but much more rewarding. Come results day, whatever my students’ outcomes, I stand by my love for the new English GCSE.

Sana Master is an English teacher in Yorkshire and tweets @MsMaster13

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Sana Master

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