GCSE Secondary English

GCSE 9-1 English: Two Years In

Naomi Hursthouse

It is two years into the cycle of teaching and examining the GCSE 9-1 English course, but what have we learned in that time?

In education, we are used to a high turnover in specifications. In my 15 years of teaching, this is the third reinvention of GCSE that I have taught. However, I don’t know of any other specification, which has quite set the cat among the pigeons as much as this one. We lost our grading system, controlled assessments, tiers, speaking and listening (which counts in any real way), and the opportunity to teach any texts written outside of this sceptered isle (RIP ‘Of Mice and Men’). Inevitably this led to a lot of upheaval for schools, teachers, students and exasperated parents trying to keep up.  Now, after two years, it seems a prime time to assess whether our apprehension was justified.

What did we expect?

When the new specifications were first published in 2015, we definitely expected tougher papers. Exams which asked students to not only analyse but also to critically evaluate unseen 19th-century texts were treading into the realms of A Level.  The loss of the 20% Speaking and Listening exams meant there was no longer a buffer for those students who were articulate, but struggled to express themselves in written form. In fact, everything now hinged on the exam. Or four exams. What’s more, there were no longer any tiers, which I think brought us opportunities and concern in equal measure.

What has the reality been?

The loss in tiers has been a boon to mixed ability teaching which, from my experience, has been on the increase in English classrooms. Our least able students can now sit alongside their more able peers, without the limits of sitting a different paper. However, despite this advantage, the loss in tiers, has also had a serious and possibly very negative impact. Even though our least able students do not now have to be consigned to ‘bottom sets’, there are huge questions over the effect that sitting these tougher, and largely inaccessible, papers is having on their health and well-being. Is it fair to expect our low prior attainment students to cope with unseen 19th-century non-fiction? What it seems to be doing is to make them feel like failures, as they struggle to achieve more than a grade 2, despite the effort they put in. Furthermore, the Literature exams, with their increased content and jam-packed exam papers, penalise those students who cannot write quickly and find recall difficult.

However, that isn’t to say that more challenge wasn’t needed. And that is certainly what we got. Our more able students are coping with the growth in ambition, and it has been a pleasure to see them analyse texts in greater depth, and construct cohesive and perception arguments. As the students who have been affected by the increased rigour at KS2 and the focus on grammar move up through the school, then we should see young people who are better prepared for the heavier focus on literary and linguistic methods and the accompanying terminology.

I think that my greatest argument with the 9-1 GCSE is not the increase in challenge, or even the over-emphasis on the literary canon, but the amazing speed with which the whole thing was rattled through. This has led to many of those students in the first few years being underprepared and ill-equipped to deal with this challenge, as it takes more than two years to build the reading resilience, the skills in recall and retrieval, and the cultural capital required to succeed. The students, of all abilities, who started KS1 in 2014, and the new programme of study, should hopefully have had the chance to do this.

What’s next?

In the last few years, we have seen some seismic shifts, not only in how we teach but in how we assess teaching, and that is possibly a consequence of these exams.

In Ofsted’s draft framework (January 2019), they have stated that they will judge the Quality of Education in a school on factors which include the following:
‘Leaders adopt of construct a curriculum that‘s ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.’

‘Teaching is designed to help learners to remember in the long term the content they have been taught and integrate into larger concepts.’

In the past two years, English has become a knowledge-based curriculum, or at least a knowledge-enriched curriculum, rather than a skills-based one. We need to plan for the cultural capital which students require to be able to write perceptively about a 19th-century text in an unseen exam. This means planning for the progression of this knowledge about periods, literary styles, genres and literary allusions, throughout the curriculum model.

The change to 100% of exams has also placed this much greater emphasis on the importance of recall and retrieval. No longer are we focusing on group work and learning styles in the classroom, but on students’ ability to learn information and recall this information over time. Which school doesn’t use Knowledge Organisers these days? Or set recall tests to check that students are learning the myriad of information they need to pass their exams?

If we can successfully teach our students throughout primary and secondary education to develop the skills they need to learn and recall information then we should, hopefully, see all students, and not just the most able, finally able to cope with demands of the 9-1 exams.

So, as this specification matures, let’s hope all those pigeons have a chance to find a new roost.

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