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.

GCSE English Literature – Examining for 2021

From Ofqual: Consultation decisions – proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021:

gcse el

The relevant bit is in the second paragraph. It will be interesting to see what the majority of schools drop from the 3 areas. I suspect Poetry?

I’m guessing the pragmatism of teaching to two defined texts, regardless of ‘likeability’ of these, will be considered preferable over poetry (in syllabus I know well as examiner) with named texts and unseen questions.

From my examining experience (35+ years), that would be a shame. This said, I am no longer at the sharp end of the teaching of this, especially the broad ‘amount’ many teachers feel compelled to cover – compared with those singular defined texts.

By and large I think poetry responses convey considerable independence of thought and appreciation. Obviously, and as with any area of study/examination, this can be countered by examples of significant regurgitation and/or reliance on the over-taught, especially use of terminology.

But I personally usually find a student’s ‘voice’ in the poetry responses, especially as less reliance on use of terminology – from teachers – has grown as the examination has been in existence.

I’ve also found the unseen responses an increasingly delightful oasis of independent thinking. Not always, but often.

However, as with all change – like my not teaching the exam for 10 years – I am likely to no longer be examining it. We shall see.