GCSE English Literature – Examining for 2021: Encore

[See previous post for context].

Twitter was all a-flutter yesterday with protests about how poetry is going to be removed from the curriculum for 2021 because of reductions to commitments in coverage for examination. This social media outrage was in fact prompted by articles in the major press – BBC, TES etc. – and most of all of it came from poets/writers who I admire and respect.

As I said yesterday [and to a degree confirmed by this social media and that news thread] teachers would most likely, as a pragmatic decision, drop poetry teaching, and therefore student examination, in order to focus on two defined prose and drama texts, whatever, as I put it, those texts’ likeability.

We could and should be up in arms about teachers having to make pragmatic rather than educational decisions! But they have been doing this for decades and decades! I have been out of the classroom now for 10 years, but in my 30 years as an English teacher – whose curriculum was most often diminished/destroyed by governments of all hues and philistinism [not least the appalling duo of Cummings/Gove] – we always ended up as practitioners making the best of what was dictated.


How often did we work our kowtowed butts off making the best of English KS3 SATs teaching of content we deplored? We made a huge success, I think, in finding ways to teach Shakespeare as the dramatic performance it is, only for such to be belittled by pseudo-lit-crit type questioning. And how many ludicrous SATs results did we challenge in our schools to no avail because mark schemes could not accommodate student answers better and beyond the singular defined in those?

Who was to blame for the immediate above? Well, all governments who promoted this educational garbage. And the English teachers who marked these exams. And all the writers and English teachers who did not complain and campaign and respond to consultation documents and whose teacher unions did not support.

By the way: English teachers were the first to refuse to mark SATs one year, for which the unions took credit [!], and Labour under Ed Balls eventually got rid of KS3 SATs.

And what of English KS1 and 2 SATs that have survived so long? Unbelievable destructive rubbish approved by the empty space that is Nick Gibb.

If any of the poets/writers I admire get this far I would like to reassert that admiration now!! I hate forced pragmatism. I see it in the GCSE examining I have done/do [a different planet from SATs, though many might not agree] when the teachers’ narrow and pragmatic focus is so apparent in student responses. I have analysed this in detail often and throughout this blog – including, by the way, how I wrote and complained to every single Education Secretary throughout my teaching career, took the DfE to significant task, and campaigned successfully against the Cummings/Gove desire to make the study of Romantic poets a compulsory entity – and I have understood it because I too experienced as Head of English the pressure of a target and measurement/judgement culture.

Let’s ban exams. I worked in the privileged environment of 100% English coursework assessment with national teacher trail marking, advice, sharing and moderation etc. so know it can work. Coursework itself has become problematic because of plagiarism ease, but there are many ways to give prominence to teacher assessment and make its standardising the most intensive and productive, ongoing teacher-training imaginable.

Well, that isn’t going to happen, so let’s ban the target culture.

OK, that isn’t going to happen either. And so on. So I sympathise with teachers who will make dreadful pragmatic decisions, and I too rue the impact on poetry experience [and study] as I stated two days ago, before the online eruptions.

I’d love to see a continuous national assault on the way the English curriculum is orchestrated by political ideologues, and this done so by all the poets and writers and readers who spoke out yesterday, acknowledging here how Michael Rosen sustains this almost single-handed. I try on this blog but just don’t have an audience.

At the moment, the curriculum across all subjects is driven by the ‘Gospel of Knowledge is All’  Hirschian modelling. The government resourced/recommended/pushed online teaching resource from Oak National Academy itself models this in its reductive approach to teaching and learning.

So it is about voting too [don’t we know this painfully now!!]. But it is also about focusing our ire on those who deserve it, not teachers making tough decisions they won’t necessarily like making.

2 thoughts on “GCSE English Literature – Examining for 2021: Encore

  1. I agree with every word. I started teaching English in 1967 and left after nearly thirty years with what was euphemistically called “stress” I was fortunate enough to retire early – they could hire two probationary teachers with my salary. I was relieved to go- but it took several years before I was completely out of the shadow.

    The thing that killed me off was the realisation that we were no longer expected to teach children – we were there to teach the syllabus. Gradgrind ruled.The end of the 100% coursework finished me off. It was a kindly method of evaluation, which maintained standards through constant communication between classroom teachers, HoD’s, Moderators meetings etc. It was fair to everyone.

    So they ditched it.

    I am massively grateful to be let out of the asylum, but I loved teaching and I still feel that something good has been taken from me.


    • Hello Ian – thanks for getting in touch, and good to hear we can share in similar experiences and feelings. Though I understand entirely your expression ‘something good has been taken from me’, I am trusting you also have that feeling of having made a contribution? Those ‘good’ times allowed us to do this, and the fact you ‘loved teaching’ demonstrates that you did. I have many friends and colleagues still in the job, and they have a resilience I do admire [!], but I also know of their struggles with an environment and expectations I too was glad to leave behind.

      All best, Mike


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