Guest post: An open letter to Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt about English Literature GCSE

School senior leader Mary Meredith is very concerned at the state of her own subject – English Literature – and has drafted this open letter to Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt ahead of the election…

Dear Tristram and Nicky

We don’t know the outcome of the next general election, of course, so forgive me for writing to you both. My subject is the catastrophically ‘strengthened’ English Literature GCSE.

This week saw Paper 2 of the Edexcel iGCSE exam. We opted for this at my school as a refreshing alternative to the tyranny of controlled assessments. I have to say, I was filled with pride as I watched students of all ability pouring over their exam copies of the Edexcel poetry anthology. They were clearly doing precisely as taught – reading the question closely and then carefully annotating the relevant poems before framing their responses. ‘Sonnet 116’ came up in a question about ‘close relationships’. A gift. All students wrote to the end of the exam and those who had extra time actually used it.

Despite this, though, the experience was bittersweet. More bitter than sweet, in truth.

I’m not just referring to last week’s removal of the iGCSE from performance measures either. No, it’s the absurdly draconian ruling that from 2017 the anthology paper must be closed book that truly depresses me.

If you haven’t prepared candidates for iGCSE you might not fully appreciate that studying 16 poems for terminal examination is, for many, quite a challenge. (You do have to study them all because the question always names at least one – as with ‘strengthened’ GCSEs.) That said, my intervention group and I, we enjoyed the experience – curiously, Macneice’s difficult ‘Prayer Before Birth’ emerged as a real favourite – maybe they identified, as students in uniform, with the ‘dragooned’ soldiers of the poem; the ‘things’ with ‘one face’. I don’t know. I just know that ‘Prayer’ resonated.

It’s not then the level of challenge represented by the new anthology material that concerns me at all. I do buy the entitlement argument, and especially after our recent very positive Edexcel experience. No, it’s the closed book. The fact that students will now have to file at least 15 poems into their long term memories in order to pull them out and dust them down for close analysis in an exam. Many simply won’t be able to do that.

And for those who can, why should they have to waste their time when they could be, for example, reading more widely or fine-tuning their analytical skills? Where’s the logic? ‘A’ level lit students don’t have to perform such pointless feats of memory and neither do under-graduates, so why should the nation’s teenagers? With 80% of marks awarded for close analysis – not recall – the answer can’t have anything to do with real assessment.

Ofqual needs to explain how close analysis will be enabled by removing entirely from view the object for analysis.

Until it does this, we can only conclude as English teachers that we are faced with a complete nonsense. One that has nothing at all to do with the study of English Literature as we know and love it. One that will not inject rigour, raise standards, or promote ‘world class education’ but that will simply heap entirely counter-productive and completely unnecessary pressure on teachers and their students.

Please, Secretary of State, whoever you might be next year, save our most precious of subjects by addressing these concerns as a matter of urgency.

Yours, Prayerfully,

Mary Meredith


Anyone else worried about the issues surrounding the English Literature GCSE raised here by Mary Meredith? Please add your concerns and feedback in the comments or via Twitter…


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Categories: Secondary.


  1. JojJojoelle

    SchoolsImprove Its an unrealistic expectation! To expect children to have the memory recall for that magnitude of literature. Also, it 1/2

  2. JojJojoelle

    SchoolsImprove limits, and reduces the children’s choice to enjoy a more expansive pool of literacy. It’s also a colossal pressure.

  3. JoNoGo

    SchoolsImprove marymered NickyMorgan01 TristramHuntMP Hear-hear. Closed book exams prove very little in so many subjects.

  4. Brummiekim7

    MaryMyatt SchoolsImprove every English teacher should read and take note! To analyse you need to see the text not memorise it!

  5. sharpeleven

    SchoolsImprove marymered Its demeaning that hardworking, dedicated professionals have to beg & kowtow to these awful political idiots.

  6. sharpeleven

    SchoolsImprove marymered Its demeaning that hardworking, dedicated professionals have to beg & kowtow to these awful political idiots.

  7. echeadmaster

    SchoolsImprove marymered One may disagree about ‘our most precious subject’, but everything else is spot on and eloquently argued…

  8. berylkingston

    g56g What an excellent letter. My students loved Prayer Before Birth too Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

  9. marymered

    berylkingston g56g As an English teacher, I identify with the thistle down blown “hither and thither or hither and thither”. Great poem.

  10. mcallister1

    SchoolsImprove marymered I agree completely. In practice students will probably learn a few useful quotations from each poem. Limiting.

  11. marymered

    mcallister1 SchoolsImprove Absolutely. Will have to remember metric form etc too or, more likely, not analyse that in exam. Rigour? Joke

  12. magnus4444

    Couldn’t agree more… we’re also studying the poetry for Paper 2 and it is extremely demanding as a route already without this further cognitive load of memory for pupils – in many ways, comparing two poems under exam conditions is already tougher than what pupils do in many AS exams where they just get one (printed in the paper of course) and then have to comment on it.
    The change outlined would make this route only really for A/A* candidates as the feats of memory required would almost certainly scare off teachers from entering candidates at lower ability levels.

  13. marymered

    jillberry102 Cheers for RT & follow Jill! Those engaged in the debate are as one on this issue. Would be great to hear from more.

  14. marymered

    jillberry102 Look at new lit GCSE through the eye of the learner for a nanosecond and it becomes a huge black cloud that has to be resisted

  15. AynieLR

    SchoolsImprove marymered problem is that back when Gove was doing exams he’ll have had to commit it all to memory-therefore better/harder.

  16. AsterTony

    SchoolsImprove marymered Another subject messed up by political idiots. Will it soon be Romeo & Romeo, followed by Hamlet Prince of Mecca?

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