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.
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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