The following is a guest blog from Dr Chris Wheadon of No More Marking.

The reformed GCSEs in English present new challenges for pupils in critical reading and comprehension. Teachers across the country – and pupils – are studying mark schemes and trying to interpret what they mean and how they may relate to standards.

No More Marking, working with David Didau and a group of 11 schools took a different approach. David created some stimulus material for pupils in Year 10 in line with the reformed GCSE English questions. Pupils were given an unseen text and then asked to write an essay. An extract from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for example, was followed by the question: ’How has the writer tried to interest you as a reader?’

We gathered up the responses and gave them to PhD students in English, and asked them to compare a series of essays and identify which presented the better analysis. Through their decisions we could build up a picture of the best response to the worst. As we had a reasonably large sample we could also provide indications of the likely standard of the work in terms of GCSE grades.

So what did the PhD students think of the work overall? Here are a flavour of their comments:

“One I thing I noticed was an over emphasis on traditional structural techniques of composition (adjectives etc), at the expense of any genuine analysis of the import/meaning/impact of the text. This may just be the students of course, as the outstanding essays combine a very insightful combination.”

“An overly sophisticated use of literary terms for the age group that they clearly don’t understand… This emphasis on the structures of a text without adding a context, as opposed to utilising these critical tools to analyse a text was an overwhelming ’bad’ feature.”

“The essayists were less capable when responding to the piece set in Corfu – illustrating how the author was so ’fascinated’ with nature meant that they got stuck on that particular word throughout their response – it was often repeated as an answer.”

The judges advice? Focus on meaning, impact and context. If literary tools help, then use them. Don’t start with the tool or the structure and jump to interpretation. Start with the impact and then figure out how the author got there. Answer the question, but don’t get hung up on it.

My advice? Stop worrying about mark schemes, stop trying to divine standards from them, and start judging. You’ll soon see for yourself what needs to improve, and whether pupils are actually improving.

You can join us in our measurement project for Year 7 here, or get in touch with chris@nomoremarking if you want to set up your own collaborative project using No More Marking.