The New English GCSEs – Reality is Starting to Bite
Posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2016
I know we need to move on and in some respects it is pointless comparing but having just supported a North East school to prepare their Year 11 for IGCSE and for AQA cert in Literature, and then in addition to this put schemes of work and teacher training in place for the current Year 10 to support their students of the new GCSE AQA English Literature course, it is impossible not to feel a sense of injustice at the clear differences. Are our GCSE students heading for the same fate as the students who have just received their Year 6 Key Stage 2 results? It has been announced by the DFE that based on the publication of the most recent SATs results at KS2 the cohort has significantly underachieved in comparison to previous years. This is not because the students are weaker, or the teaching is of a lower standard, but because the government changed the tests so quickly and so radically, it was almost impossible to prepare students for success. Is this what the future holds for the students sitting the new GCSE examinations?
GCSE English Literature 2016
The current Year 11 students produced an extensive comparative coursework essay worth 40% of the GCSE. For the English Literature examination which is worth 60%, the current Year 11 had to select from one or two questions about ‘Journey’s End’ it was an open book exam and the nature of the text allows for a thorough exploration of every possible angle. They had one hour to complete this. They then had 45 minutes to analyse ONE unseen poem. They only have to have two assessment objectives to achieve this. We could also decide on which tier to allow for the less able students to benefit from the breakdown of the questions for ‘Journey’s End’ and a more straightforward poem in Section B. On the whole, the students felt very well prepared and had a very positive experience in the preparation for their English Literature examination.
GCSE English Literature for the 2017 Cohort
Alongside preparing Year 11, I have also been working with Year 10 to support their learning for the new English Literature and English Language exams. As far as I am concerned it is essential that these students have a full awarenessof what is expected of them, consequently we decided that this is best served by making them sit as much of the course as possible at the end of Year 10. Last week they sat two one hour 45-minute examination papers in English Language, and the Modern Text and Poetry GSCE English Literature paper. The Modern Texts and Poetry, Literature paper, is 60% of their English Literature GSCE. It is closed book – the students are not allowed to take any texts into the examination. For Section A we chose ‘An Inspector Calls’ and they get a choice of two essay questions – one on theme, the other on character. But there is no extract and no text; they have to remember quotations. This is a single entry paper so all students of every ability are expected to access these questions. They have 45 minutes to complete this. The next 45 minutes is to be spent on Section B – which is based on the Power and Conflict poetry. There are 15 poems to study. They cannot take an anthology in to the examination room, but one of the fifteen poems will be on the paper, and then they have to compare this poem with another poem from memory from the anthology. There are limited marks available for making these links, but nevertheless, the expectation is that these comparative technique needs to be taught if the students are to have any hope of accessing the very top grades. Finally, Section C, another 45 minutes. There are two unseen poems, the first poem is worth significantly more than the poem when there needs to be a comparative element, nevertheless, yet again preparing students for this as well as all of the other skills necessary for just this paper is a daunting task. Only 8 marks are allocated to the final comparison and the very end of a 2 hour 15 minutes. There is no doubt that the skills, approach and thought processes needed to completes this examination well, are far greater than on the 2016 paper.
It is the speed that all of this has been implemented that is the other major issue. It is an injustice to the current set of students that they most likely have not had a KS3 experience that prepares them for this style and approach. The current cohort of Year 7 students do not know any different as I have also put a whole new curriculum in place at KS3 to prepare them for the new style examinations. One Year 10 student, when they saw how much challenge there was in the new Year 7 schemes, did comment “Why didn’t we start this kind of work earlier?”. He has a valid point. This is the ultimate problem with rushing all of this through. In many respects teachers are expected to be magicians, but we are not time lords, we cannot go back with these students and use KS3 as a period of time to get them prepared for 100% examinations, we have to just do our best with the limited time and the limited resources we have been given.
The Common Inspection Framework
We were told that the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework all schools would be judged in the same way. The reality for schools is that the results and the data are the biggest indicator of a school’s success, irrespective of what the inspectors’ see on the days in school. Where the disparity becomes more apparent, and the measure for success becomes biased, is that the private schools can sit IGCSE English Language until 2018, they can also write their own Literature papers hand have them verified by Ofqual. The Welsh, Northern Irish, Jersey and Guernsey students can carry on with the old style controlled assessments and examination style papers. It is the English state school children who will be labelled the under achievers if they cannot perform sufficiently well in this new style of examination. More specifically, it is the less academic working class students who are going to really struggle to reach their academic potential in such a radical change of approach towards measuring the attainment and success of students in English. If Ofsted continue to use results as their only benchmark for success, where will this leave the English state schools?
The reality is that until we know boundaries it is almost impossible to judge what these students need to do to achieve their target grades, in the way we have in recent years. They are saying that the equivalent students from the 2017 cohort will achieve the same as the 2016 students, and the boundaries will reflect this. If this is the case, why bother to change the course? The boards are not releasing how grades equate to marks for a couple of years, making it almost impossible for teachers to accurately predict grades. They are saying that colleges and schools can accept a Grade 4 as a C equivalent to get into college and to do A levels for the 2017 students. Ultimately, we have to hope that they will be kind to the guinea pigs – my own son being one of them.
Schools need to be well planned for the logistics of every subject being so heavily weighted towards examinations. We also need to work on the well-being of the students in such highly pressured times. Schools must not underestimate the will of the students. One of my friends, a top student, threw her Physics O Level exam to make sure she got a U so she wouldn’t have to enter the grade on her job applications. I also have distinct memories of when I was at school and some of the VERY CLEVER boys who just couldn’t be bothered with exams on the day simply wrote their name on the paper and went to sleep for a couple of hours until it was over…We need to have strategies in place to ensure this does not happen. There will be no coursework marks to motivate, no way of saying you have already achieved this, you only need this to get your A*/A/B/C. Teachers are going to have to put a great deal of thought into how we manage the welfare of the students in such a pressure cooker of stress and emotion. The focus has got to be technique and time management, not just content. It is also important to minimise the amount of content, to in turn minimise what they have to learn. Without modules and early entry, students will all be sitting examinations at the same time, and to cover all subjects this will take out weeks of the curriculum to put full mock programmes in place. It is necessary to allow the students to practice, but it will also limit what staff can teach, which is why many schools have changed to a three year GCSE course. We also have to hope that employers have some understanding of what this cohort of students have to do to achieve their grades in comparison with previous years. Unfortunately, I doubt that they do. Is the expectation that the 2017 cohort add a caveat to their applications to say, we sat this examination first, therefore a Grade 4 is a C?
The reality is that schools have to wholly adjust how they organise their curriculum, how they plan for assessments, how they use data, and how they predict results. Most importantly, they have to think very carefully about how they motivate students to ensure success. They will have to manage both the emotional and academic intelligence of the students. They must be taught to approach and manage the intense pressure that is unavoidable in a system with close to 100% examinations. My daughter is in Year 6 and recently sat the new style SATs. She was totally unfazed (unlike the many tales of woe and stress I had to listen to from parents and in the press). Her analysis was that they were “much easier than the practice papers.” Although we are yet to receive her actual result. Let’s hope the new GCSE papers are ‘easier’ than the exemplar materials issued so far. With excellent preparation, lots of meaningful practice, lots of emotional support, and a focus on how to achieve linked to assessment objectives not target grades, we can cling on to the hope for success. If this does not happen, can we draw parallels with the huge drop in results and achievement at Key Stage 2, and assume this is what students and schools are going to face at GCSE? Ultimately, the difference is that not doing so well in your SATs at KS2 is disappointing, but it should not impact too greatly on your life long term. This is not the case for GCSE, it means students will have to re-sit, miss out on doing A levels, miss out on college courses, maybe feel so dejected about education that they drop out altogether. Everyone in education needs to confront the reality of what we are facing. In particular, the exam boards have a major part to play in making the examination papers truly accessible to ensure that all of the current year 10 students have a chance of achieving the academic success they deserve.
Independent critical study: Texts across time
This resource provides guidance on the NEA requirements for A-level English Literature A, and should be read in conjunction with the NEA requirements set out in the specification. It develops and exemplifies the requirements, but is wholly consistent with them. Exemplar student responses accompany this guidance.
Texts across time is the non-exam assessment (NEA) component of our new A-level English Literature A specification. The specification is committed to the notion of autonomous personal reading and Texts across time provides students with the invaluable opportunity to work independently, follow their own interests and to develop their own ideas and meanings. To that end, few restrictions are placed on the student’s freedom to choose their own texts and shape their own task but the following requirements must be met:
- Students write a comparative critical study of two texts on a theme of their choice
- An appropriate academic bibliography must be included
- An academic form of referencing must be used
- The word count is 2,500 words (not including quotations or academic bibliography)
- The task must be worded so that it gives access to all five assessment objectives (AOs)
- One text must have been written pre-1900
- Two different authors must be studied
- Equal attention must be paid to each text
- A-level core set texts and chosen comparative set texts listed for study in either Love through the ages or in Texts in shared contexts cannot be used for NEA
- Texts in translation, that have been influential and significant in the development of literature in English, can be used
- Poetry texts must be as substantial as a novel or a play. A poetry text could be either one longer narrative poem or a single authored collection of shorter poems. A discrete Chaucer Tale would be suitable as a text for study, as would a poem such as The Rape of the Lock. If students are using a collection of short poems, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two poems to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection
- Single authored collections of short stories are permissible. If students are using a collection of short stories, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two stories to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection.
Managing the NEA
The introduction to NEA should provide students with a detailed review of the above requirements and guidance on what it means to work independently (e.g. productive research skills, effective time management). The point at which students begin their NEA preparation will depend on individual school and college decisions. Schools and colleges may aim to introduce the NEA in the first year of the course. An appropriate opportunity would be the six weeks which follow the completion of AS examinations but other opportunities will be available, especially where schools and colleges are not entering their students for AS.
Approaching the NEA
Schools and colleges will differ in how they approach NEA and this may be dependent upon whether:
- Students all choose individual texts and tasks for their NEA
- One text is taught to the whole cohort and the second text is individually chosen
- AS and A-level students are co-taught and an AS only prose text (The Mill on the Floss/The Rotters’ Club) is studied for NEA with the second text individually chosen.
These approaches are equally valid and take account of the different contexts in which schools and colleges will be working. What is important is that each approach recognises that a degree of autonomy in student text and task choice is required. Ideally a range of differentiated texts and tasks will be seen across a submission for this component. That said, students will choose their texts and shape their tasks with your support (and you will be supported by your NEA advisor) and the following offers you some guidance on how to help your students make these choices.
Advice on text choice
Connecting two texts on a common theme means choosing two texts which maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences. Whilst the only date requirement is that one text must be written pre-1900, the component title 'Texts across time' indicates that effective comparison and contrast occurs when the same theme is explored in two texts separated by a significant period of time; here the different contexts of production will inform the similarities and differences in approach taken by the writers to the chosen theme and students will have encountered this diachronic approach in component 1, Love through the ages. This is particularly pertinent if students choose two texts from the same genre (poetry, prose, drama). If, however, students are interested in writing about a theme within a clearly defined time period, it is advisable to consider how the study of texts from different genres will open up discussion of similarities and differences. Students will encounter this synchronic approach in component 2: Texts in shared contexts, and exemplar student response A is an excellent example of the successful connection of a prose and drama text, written within twenty five years of each other, from the Victorian period.
When supporting students with their choice of texts, therefore, the following guidance is useful:
- both texts should be of sufficient weight and of suitable ‘quality’ for A-level study; the set text lists for the examined components help to exemplify what is meant by a substantial text, particularly in relation to selecting an appropriate amount of poetry for a poetry ‘text’. Remember, however, that the A-level set texts cannot be used in NEA
- texts chosen for study must maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences
- texts must allow access to a range of critical views and interpretations, including over time, which students can evaluate and apply autonomously. Secondary sources, relevant to the texts, can include film and stage productions, books and articles; an example of an appropriate bibliography accompanies the exemplar student responses
- once texts are identified, which both address the student’s chosen theme, a more defined focus for the essay is needed; this may arise, for example, from similarities and differences in genre (poetry, prose, drama), type (e.g. gothic fiction), contexts (e.g. of production and reception), authorial method (e.g. narrative structure or point of view), theoretical perspective (e.g. feminism). Exemplar student response A is a good example of how the wider theme of the role of women in the nineteenth-century has been more clearly defined in the focus on two specific relationships and the inclusion of a clear viewpoint – that ‘the personal is political’ – for consideration.
If students are struggling to identify a thematic topic area of interest to them, or texts for study, the specification offers suggestions of themes (page 20) and, as at least one of the texts must have been written pre-1900, of pre-1900 texts (pages 21-22). This is by no means an exhaustive list and it should be emphasised that students are free to develop their own interests from their independent reading. The exemplar NEA responses, however, show how these suggestions might be taken as a starting point and then developed with a more clearly defined focus. Other such combinations to consider as a starting point might include:
- representations of men in Vanity Fair and A Doll’s House
- the gothic in Northanger Abbey and Keats’ poems (‘Lamia’, 'Isabella or The Pot of Basil’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’)
- representations of social class and culture in Middlemarch and She Stoops to Conquer
- satire and dystopia in Frankenstein and The School for Scandal
- representations of women in The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’
Clearly the texts mentioned may be interchangeable with other texts suggested in the specification or indeed with the student’s own choice of texts (which may include one post-1900 text); the broad themes will undoubtedly be interchangeable with others and will need to be refined to identify a more clearly defined comparative focus. What these suggestions provide, therefore, is a way for students to begin thinking about the NEA and student autonomy should always be encouraged.
Advice on task choice
We encourage schools and colleges to check individual students’ essay titles with their AQA NEA adviser before students embark on their research, especially where there may be some uncertainty about the appropriateness of texts or the approach being taken.
What is clear, given that the NEA assesses all five assessment objectives (AOs), is that the task must allow access to them all. Students should be familiar with this concept by the time they approach the NEA as all AOs are tested in all questions in the examined components 1 and 2. Exemplar student response A is a good example of how access to all AOs is enabled by the task and the moderator commentary explains how the AOs have been addressed by the student. It is worth considering how key terms in the task wording enable different AOs to be accessed:
Compare and contrast the ways in which Elizabeth Gaskell and Henrik Ibsen present the relationships between Margaret Hale and John Thornton in North and South (1854-55) and Nora and Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House (1879).
Examine the view that in both texts, ‘the personal is political’.
AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
The use of the command words ‘compare and contrast’ invites the student to organise her response around relevant similarities and differences in the presentation of relationships in the chosen texts. In doing so, she will express her ideas using appropriate terminology.
AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
The key word ‘present’ explicitly invites the student to write about the different genres of her chosen texts and, together with ‘the ways in which’, signals the need to discuss a range of authorial methods involved.
AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
The focus on specific relationships and on the concept of ‘the personal as political’ engages with how literary representations thereof can reflect social, cultural and historical aspects of the time period in which these texts were written.
AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.
The command words ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ instruct the student to make connections between the texts in terms of subject matter and authorial method.
AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.
The directive to ‘examine’ a clear viewpoint - that ‘the personal is political’ - signals the need to debate this given opinion and so to engage with multiple readings and interpretations.
Advice on writing the essay
Having completed the study of their chosen texts, researched secondary sources and devised an appropriate task, students will need guidance on how to pull their ideas together into a coherent response. Here again, exemplar student response A offers an excellent example of how to structure a sophisticated argument and the moderator commentary explains how this student achieves this. Some key points to note are:
- this is a connective task and so students should be prepared to make connections between their texts in terms of similarity and difference throughout the response; students should make the connections they wish to explore from a range including authorial method, context, genre and critical theory
- contexts and critical views should not be bolted on but instead should be woven through the response, evaluated as a way of reading the primary texts and then used as a stepping-stone into the development of an interesting and persuasive personal overview
- well-selected, concise quotations should be embedded and adapted to the student’s own syntax and required meaning
- a bibliography and academic referencing are required to indicate the secondary sources used by the student during the writing of their essay. AQA does not insist on a particular form of referencing but following the example given in the exemplar student responses would be appropriate.
Supervising and authenticating students' work
The role and responsibilities of the teacher in supervising and authenticating students’ work are set out in Section 6.1 of the specification. It is worthwhile emphasising that the teacher must confirm that each essay submitted is the work of the individual student. The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) document Instructions for conducting coursework provides further guidance about the level of support and guidance that is appropriate for teachers to provide to students. In accordance with JCQ guidance, the following support would not be acceptable:
- having reviewed the candidate’s work, giving detailed advice and suggestions as to how the work may be improved in order to meet the assessment criteria
- giving detailed indications of errors or omissions which leave the candidate no opportunity for individual initiative
- giving advice on specific improvements needed to meet the assessment criteria
- providing writing frames specific to the task (e.g. outlines, paragraph headings or section headings)
- intervening personally to improve the presentation or content of the work.
The role and responsibilities of teachers in submitting marks are set out in Section 6.6 of the specification. Please note that a mark out of 50 is required. This means that the mark you award against the assessment criteria, which will be out of 25, needs to be doubled when entering on the Candidate record form, before submitting marks to AQA.