In the first of a series of four features looking at GQ reform, Helen Cunningham considers the challenges and opportunities the new GCSEs will present for teachers of English…
Amid all the coverage of the forthcoming reforms to England’s GCSE system, where everything from exam grading to school league tables is undergoing massive change, less focus has been placed on one of the most challenging aspects for English teachers – the move to a fully linear curriculum structure with 100 per cent terminal assessment. Possibly the biggest challenge will be for teachers to convince themselves that, with careful preparation, their students really can stand on their own two feet and show what they know and understand about English during their one chance in the exam room. While many argue that 100% exam assessment of the complex set of skills which students must now master is not ideal, recent experience of examination performance indicates that pupils are remarkably good at rising to the challenge.
The challenges ahead
The new English exams have various implications for teachers, not least that many will need to adjust their teaching styles accordingly. The demise of tiered exams in English means educators will need to find really engaging and motivating methods of teaching across the whole ability range. And a GCSE in English Literature is undoubtedly set to be a more challenging prospect as an optional, more text-heavy course centred around whole texts of 19th century literature, romantic poetry and Shakespeare, especially for less able students. There may also be time pressures when moving though substantial whole texts with students of different abilities, and with different learning styles. Teachers will need to find new ways of engaging students with traditional texts, and the time and space to discuss and debate in the classroom. With course work and controlled assessment replaced with a ‘high-stakes’ exam at the end of two years, pupils and teachers will need to find a fresh focus on revision and exam preparations. Moreover, with large numbers of the teaching profession having neither studied nor taught linear courses before, there is likely to be an increased need for support in order to cope with the new course format, as well as with the greater emphasis on raising attainment of the entire cohort of pupils. Understanding and predicting the new 1-9 grades may also be tricky, especially in the first years of the reformed exams, as will tracking students’ progress without the benefit of modular results along the way. For both new English GCSEs there will be a requirement to use more diverse and challenging writing skills, such as narration and argument. 20 per cent of the marks for the new English Language GCSE and five per cent of the marks for GCSE English Literature will be awarded for writing clearly using accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. This new higher weighting for SPaG may well impact on students grades and some students are likely to need support with the extended writing element now required.
The most overwhelmingly positive aspect of these reforms is that they allow teachers to enjoy a new freedom to develop a curriculum structure which suits their pupils. With a large part of the required reading being about deconstructing unknown, unseen texts, teachers will be able to choose their own many and varied texts to develop this skill. The tyranny of preparing for the next controlled assessment will be replaced by deciding which short story, magazine article or poem to use for a lesson. With writing, teachers may ponder what their next creative writing workshop lesson will be based on. Remember too the potential for cross-over teaching of the new English Language and Literature courses where both are taken, for example with 19th century texts which feature in both syllabuses. There will also be a chance for writers to shine – the skills of crafted writing will need to be taught just as systematically as those of reading and comprehension as they are worth just as many marks now. There has been some criticism that 100% examination reduces English and English Literature to a memory test, but I don’t believe this is the case. The new exams will, on the whole, be about showing how well students are able to apply critical autonomy to texts they have never seen before. The demands of unseen texts means that students will need to develop and hone their ability to read ‘dynamically’ any text which is thrown at them. Although it is true that for a part of the Literature exam candidates will have to recall aspects of the narrative, the contribution of various characters to that story, the effectiveness of the setting and some of the themes developed, that surely is no bad thing. We want the stories of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and the others to be echoes in the minds of future generations, alongside those of contemporary writers. And actually a significant part of the Literature exam will be extract-driven as well. It’s an exciting time to be in teaching, not least because of the possibilities and opportunities offered via new interactive digital resources, including material designed to support and guide teachers and link progression clearly to the new mark schemes. Videos are another really useful resource for teachers which save a lot of classroom time. The most important thing for teachers is to be effective curators of that knowledge and bring to life the cultural heritage of the past in a way which enthuses students with the love of literature which brought most of them into English teaching in the first place.
About the author
With almost 15 years’ experience in the industry, Helen Cunningham is publishing director for the UK Education Division at Cambridge University Press, where part of her role is to come up with innovative and compelling publishing solutions to support teachers in delivering the new curriculum. Now kept busy managing a brand new digital-first programme for UK schools, Helen has worked in commercial and not-for-profit settings and has a wide range of experience of publishing for diverse markets, including the Caribbean and West Africa.