A Brave New Dawn for English GCSEs: Some Questions

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley16 Comments


So the cat is out the bag. Old school terminal exams are here to stay. There is an end to coursework and its bastard love child – controlled assessments. Speaking & listening has officially become a third rate skill deemed fit only for a token mention in the exam qualification credits. No alarms and no surprises. I’m sure I read all of that in the Telegraph over a year ago!

Still, I am left lingering over some questions about our brave new, and determinedly linear, world. I am left with questions about GCSE English and English Language (unfortunately the nuances of the newly minted Maths GCSE are beyond my knowledge). So here goes:

– Will the removal of extended writing, beyond a time-constrained terminal exam, prepare students adequately for A levels and university study?

– Will the reduced importance of speaking and listening have a knock on effect in the classroom with regards to teaching those crucial skills? If we value those skills for our students, could we not have endeavoured to look at successful models of S&L assessment, like the International Baccalaureate Diploma (regardless of cost to exam boards)?

– Should qualifications like the English iGCSE, which includes coursework and S&L assessments, be allowed to coexist with a new English GCSE and therefore be judged comparatively? Is this fair?

– Why are we bothering with a token gesture inclusion of S&L on the exam certificate? Is that inclusion an implicit recognition that if you don’t formally assess skills then they don’t get taught adequately?

– Will the English Language exam produce any better reading material than the lobotomised fare we have had to suffer?

– What talented examiner is going to be able to write exams in English that every student in England can access? Can we meet this person and ask them lots of questions about effective differentiation?

– Why do we bother with a nationally prescribed canon of authors? The ‘de facto canon’ will emerge anyway – why not entrust schools with that particular ‘freedom’ to choose?

– Whilst we are on the canon – why do people get annoyed by the inclusion of Romantic poetry (yes, I am aware this contradicts my previous question) and Victorian novels? Think Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Dickens, Hardy, Bronte (the lot of ’em), Conrad and Eliot. Why would we not choose many of these if we had the freedom to do so?

– Given we are moving to an ‘all eggs in one basket’ terminal exam, what guarantees are in place for an improved standard of exam marking?

– Will the new league table measures lessen the incredible pressures on English teachers to teach students the ‘shape of the spoon’? Do the DfE recognise that it has been the punitive accountability measures which have distorted the teaching of English over these last few years and it has driven many brilliant English teachers to breaking point?

– What will be the implications for school entry policy in response to double counting English Language in league tables only with the inclusion of English Literature? (Thanks to David Birch for the reminder)

– Will we be given time – regardless of what new government or coalition emerges from the next election – to train, implement and teach these new GCSEs? In fact, can we move these curriculum changes outside of the electoral cycle altogether?

I have many more questions. In the last couple of years English teachers have been used to having many more questions than answers. The uncertainty and inability to plan with any trust in what we are planning has been dispiriting to say the least. I am not against many aspects of the curriculum changes at GCSE, quite the contrary, but I am sceptical about their implementation.

If this is to be a real and enduring shift in the quality and standard of the GCSE qualifications then the changes need to involve the very English teachers who will ultimately determine the success of such qualifications. Any new qualification will also need a sustained period of time to fully develop and flourish. I am even willing to be tentatively optimistic about these proposed changes, but many questions still need answering.


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  2. With regard to your first question – i would have hoped that the removal of CA would allow a lot more time for extended writing (drafting and redrafting) during classtime. This wouldn’t be limited to the terminal exam, so students can be better prepared for writing essays at A-levels or university should those skills be required.

    1. Author

      I think an inevitable reality will be that if there is no demand for extended writing, with drafting skills etc. I don’t think rigorous extended writing will not happen much at all. Teachers will feel pressured to cover the content of all the literature in depth and to meet the needs of the exam. Speaking and listening will follow a similar path. Right or wrong, this is what happens as soon as you narrow the means of assessment but you retain the very same pressures on attainment.

  3. Hi Alex. My answers to your questions (apologies in advance for the cynicism)

    2. Yes
    3. Yes/No
    4. Yes
    5. Jury’s out
    6.I suspect there aren’t any – the task is beyond the wit of (wo)man
    7. It’s “Gove-prescribed”, because left to their own devices schools would probably choose such lightweights as Henry James, Jack Kerouac or, God forbid, Emily Dickinson, who couldn’t even punctuate properly.
    8. See answer to 7
    9. None, and still fewer guarantees of no ministerial tinkering with the outcomes.
    10. All must do Eng Lit regardless (curriculum design by league table, as per EBacc)

    I agree entirely with your take in your reply to Carol Davenport.. I think Carol has looked at the language side oif things in isolation, but it is, of course, part of a much bigger picture, and a lot will depend on how schools react to the double counting issue. I think i know the answer to that!

    I admire your tentative optimism and I hope you get the answers to these very germane questions. It leads one to speculate that perhaps the direction of travel has not been fully thought through….

    I suspect it will be as ever – the politicians serve us a dog’s breakfast, and we will work out the best ways of eating it.

  4. Lovely and thoughtful questions which I fear we may never have the answer to! I hate the 100% terminal exam for a subject – as I mentioned on my blog – founded on slow rumination and reflection.

  5. “why not entrust schools with that particular ‘freedom’ to choose?”

    Because to many would choose “Of Mice and Men”, “The Crucible”, “Lord of the Flies” and a flimsy anthology of post-war poetry.

    1. Author

      What you rationale behind that statement be? Teachers just teaching what they know? Do you not think if you stifle choice an equally narrow ‘de facto’ canon emerges? Everyone teaching Blake’s ‘London’ etc. I think you could nudge schools to ensure they had real breadth and select texts with cultural currency without selecting an arbitrary list that doesn’t confer any quality of teaching.

  6. Lots of food for thought here, Alex. I tend to agree with @DrDav about extended writing: we know its importance & should (*must*), therefore, continue to provide opportunities. There is absolutely no reason why this can’t be built in to the necessary study of the literary texts. Extended writing, plus drafting, needs to be woven in to the KS3 curriculum so that it naturally continues at KS4.

    I’m frustrated by the imposition of Romantic poetry because I fear it narrows the vista when no such restriction is necessary. What about the wealth of other wonderful poetry out there – pre & post C20?

    I heard Glenys Stacey saying that materials will be in schools by August 2014 to give preparation time prior to the first teaching in September 2015. Let’s hope it’s all finalised by then so that schools can devote sufficient time to curriculum planning.

  7. All good questions and ones to which we need answers. For some posed, only time will tell. The need for students to develop extended writing skills is an important issue, not least because as English teachers we know this is an essential not just for post 16/uni study but also for the world of work. The double counting of Englush only with Lit has the potential to be very damaging, with pupils unsuited to doing it being forced down that road due to league table pressures. (Will IGCSE double count in the same way?)

    The elephant in the room is, of course, standards. Both of examinations set and of marking. I spent quite a lot of time on Friday trying to think about materials and tasks that could be appropriate for both grade 1 and grade 9 students (and everyone in between), giving them a fair crack of the whip and the chance to display their skills, talents & expertise. I failed miserably, I have to say.

    English has been a political football now for years, to the detriment of students and teachers. One can only hope the powers that be pause now, consult with the profession over exam materials and design, and give us all a long period if stability. Oh, and as you rightly say, the time to be properly traine and the time to plan effectively.

    1. Surely, Heather, it’s unfair to both grade 1 and grade 9 students to give them the same tasks? You could not – as a good teacher – but fail in your attempt.

  8. Questions re the continuance of IGCSE are well put. I find it aged to see how the government can allow state school sitting of this to continue if it undermines the attempt to deliver a new exam. On the other hand, the fact that a qualification is aready in use which is based solely on final outcome begins to give lie to the cries of woe. What might be impossible to square is the single tier- a massive exercise in differentiation . Worth noting thT current Ededxcel Certificate grade boundaries are very generous with a C grade down to anything around 47%… Will this be replicated?
    So many unknowns. Thanks for opening the box so effectively.

  9. I know I’m being incredibly stupid – but I can’t see anything about English as a stand alone subject – it now finished in favour of Lang/Lit?

    I’m answering my own question I suppose,

  10. A great series of questions Alex – I’m only going to venture an answer to one: History GCSEs have never had tiers – and, as far as I can tell, that has never caused any problems. As I know from experience (bitter and delightful), students can respond to most questions at every conceivable level. These untiered papers have given a lot of students I’ve taught the chance to do far better than I think they would have done had they been entered for a tier.

    1. Author

      Thanks Harry. I have seen exams that would be open to almost all students, except our current entry level students with extreme literacy issues. My hardened experience of the English Language exam is that is has been poorly written for a long time – more specifically the reading section. They will need to make a radical shift in style to make it both accessible and effective. Let’s hope, like with History, they can make a decent fist of it! Still – I am healthily questioning!

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