In a Tes article this week, concerns were raised about the formulaic nature of the most recent GCSE English specifications. These concerns are wildly misplaced, and somewhat out of touch with many teachers’ views across the country.
One of the areas of criticism is the “mechanistic and formulaic” nature of the questions in the exam. The exact opposite is true. The questions on the English literature paper are thematic. An extract is provided on which to base initial analysis, followed by a response to the whole text. The scope is vast – the more imaginative and original, the better.
In the classroom, this allows teachers to teach with absolute freedom, and to emphatically explore the whole text. The knowledge required to excel at this style of examination is limitless – students must have an in-depth, detailed knowledge of character, plot and context, and be able to apply this in an exam.
While some may argue that this is too challenging for students, my experience, and that of many others’, says differently. What this in fact allows is in-depth, academic, demanding submersion into the wonderful world of English literature. Young people now have an enviable depth of learning about English literature.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Thinking back to teaching English, before the most recent specifications were published in 2015, a light-touch approach was sufficient to ensure a good mark at GCSE. Students responded to a small section of text in the controlled assessment, and the open-book nature of the exam meant that they spent more time in an exam clutching at the text, desperate to find the perfect quotation.
Now students must rely on their stellar knowledge of the text. True immersion is what this specification leads to, and our students are all the more privileged as a result. Why anyone would want anything other than this is beyond me.
A criticism levelled unfairly at the specification is the allegation that it leads to “an obsession with vocabulary and technical terms”, alongside “feature spotting”. Of course the mark scheme of the examinations features phrases such as “subject terminology used judiciously”.
It would be nonsensical for an English GCSE not to reward the academic formalities of its subject. AQA, the leading English exam board, has been painstaking in its support to teachers, saying in its 2017 examiner report that such terminology had become an “artificial barrier to fluent and confident discussion”. Such clarification was welcomed from teachers across the country.
In its 2018 examiner report, AQA then confirmed that there was “a marked reduction in unhelpful and obstructive use of terminology”. This reflected the fact that teachers had, on the whole, made use of previous concerns raised and adapted their delivery to take this into account.
It seems strange that, despite this very public and clear commentary from the board, criticism continues to be drawn on this. Furthermore, it is the role of the professional to make use of the examiner reports, not the fault of the specification if they do not. Such criticism seems somewhat out of date and out of touch with what is happening in classrooms.
A real privilege
Further criticism comes in the form of a bolt-on approach to teaching context. Again, this seems to be a misdirected criticism of teaching, rather than of the specification itself.
The mark scheme rewards candidates for “detailed links between context/text/task”, thus demonstrating a much stronger use of context than as a mere bolt-on.
One of the many reasons I relish teaching the specifications is because of their focus on context: teaching students about Russian history in preparation for reading Animal Farm, for example, is a real privilege. For many, especially those not studying history GCSE, it is their first time dabbling in the world of politics, and it is an honour to explore political history with young people. They grow from this, they make connections to the current climate, they form opinions, they understand the moral imperative of the political vote. In short, it’s a special moment.
Such a detailed study of context equips them with powerful knowledge, not just about the world but also about the text. Artful application of this in an exam is what is rewarded, not merely pointing out that Animal Farm is “based on Russia” and that George Orwell was born in 1903 and was called Eric Arthur Blair.
I would agree with the criticism of the “canon” offered in the specifications, and echo the need to have a more diverse, culturally wide inclusion of texts. However, I would argue that the new specifications should, in fact, be greeted with open arms, not criticism. They offer our young people a deep and rich exploration of English literature.
In classrooms across the UK, teenagers are submersed in wild and wonderful worlds, with a steep, impressive knowledge of texts. Contrary to the criticism, this actually leads to imagination and exploration.
Students now have knowledge of the best subject (sorry, maths) and can make powerful links and critiques between them. A social leveller, the new specifications ensure that all students have a fair shot at success. Immerse yourself in literature, form your own philosophical, informed ideas, and you will soar.
Amy Forrester is an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria