AQA - “This Year’s English Literature GCSE Is Something That Should Inspire Confidence, Not Concern”

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Key Stage: 3&4
Subject: English, Product Focus
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There’s no doubt that, as the first cohort of candidates gets ready to take reformed GCSE examinations this year, there is considerable anxiety amongst parents, teachers and students as to both the nature of the tests they will be taking, and how the new assessment process will work.

It is inevitable that meaningful information on grade boundaries and the provision of support materials, such as exemplar scripts and examiner reports, can only be made available after the exams have actually been sat by students.

For Sarah Darragh, AQA chief examiner for GCSE English literature, however, the lack of a strict set of checkboxes to be ticked by learners in order to be certain of a particular level of result is something to be viewed as empowering, not problematic.

And she’s in a good position to hold this opinion, because as the chief examiner for GCSE English literature at AQA, she was closely involved in the development of the new AQA qualification that young people will be taking this year. She will also be leading an extensive team of examiners as they begin the first marking and awarding of grades this summer.

Freedom to teach properly
“It was certainly not without its challenges,” she confesses. “The subject criteria and assessment objectives were so tight – and we had our eye very firmly fixed on the fact that this would be an untiered, closed book qualification.

Clearly that was likely to lead to some conflicting, counter-intuitive parameters – but we were absolutely determined to create something that would cater for the whole ability range, and provide teachers with an assessment model that returned to the shared core principles of good teaching and learning. And I really do think we’ve done it.

Essentially, as long as teachers understand the rationale behind the decisions we’ve made, this should give them back much of the autonomy that’s been taken away from them over recent years; freeing them up to teach properly, as we know they want to do.”

According to Sarah, the mark scheme has been set up with flexibility in mind; instead of narrow criteria – such as ‘number of quotes used’ – that will identify a response as being a ‘grade 4’, or ‘5’, the idea is that examiners should be able to take what students are giving them and look at it in a much more holistic and contextual way.

“All the AQA senior examiners have had extensive, face to face training,” she points out. “They all know the rationale and ethos, and understand what the qualification is designed to do. It’s designed to focus on skills, and the content is the mechanism by which those skills are developed. Essentially, if teachers understand the mark scheme, and ensure that candidates are resilient, confident and independent, then they should be able to see students demonstrating their ability quite naturally in the exam room.”

“Once the papers have been sat by students the examining team can begin work on marking, which can take approximately 12 weeks. To ensure marking is fair and accurate, controls including training for examiners to ensure they fully understand the mark scheme, and quality control of each examiner’s marking takes place throughout the marking period – there’s no room in the process for subjectivity. Where an examiner is not marking to the right standards, they can’t continue marking and their scripts are given to another examiner.”

A bright future
Sarah is aware that the key messages of freedom and flexibility may take a while to sink in.

“I work in teacher training,” she says, “and I see just how pressured teachers have been with regard to getting students to meet extremely rigid assessment criteria in the past. Convincing them that they can trust us, and themselves, and go back to the kind of teaching that leads to real understanding and engagement, as well as success, won’t happen overnight; but the qualification will grow and develop as we move forward, and so, I am sure, will the confidence and autonomy of teachers. Being a part of this process and, hopefully, being able to influence good practice in the classroom, is just one reason why I can’t now imagine being an English teacher, without also taking on the role of an AQA examiner.”

Find out more about AQA – including how to become an examiner – at

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