Seeing as all sorts of folks have decided now is a good time to try to get rid of (or at least, reform) GCSEs, I thought I’d offer up my opinions. I should start by saying that, on the whole, I’m in favour of retaining exams. If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that for all their problems (and despite all the noisy rhetoric to the contrary) no one has been able to suggest anything better. Exams continue to be the worst possible way to assess children apart from all the other ways. The problem with all forms of teacher assessment is not that the assessment is undertaken by teachers but by human beings. Our cognitive flaws are well enough understood to make it clear that the fairest approach to assessment is to use standardised testing. But that said, there are many problems with the current incarnation of GCSEs.
I’m going to restrict myself to commenting only on the two English GCSEs: language and literature. Let’s begin by reviewing some of the issues with English language. I’m not the first – and I’m sure I won’t be the last – to point out that the English language GCSE is the most iniquitous of all the GCSEs children sit. In every other exam subject, children’s results are dependent on their teachers teaching the content of the courses, but the fact that it has absolutely no specified content means that the broader students’ cultural knowledge, the better they’ll do. This means that children from advantaged backgrounds tend to do better despite what schools do. Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are so dependent on schools bucking the trend and avoiding the trap of believing English is a ‘skills based’ subject that they are statistically much less likely to succeed. The more you happen to know about the unfamiliar texts that pop up in the exam, the better you’ll do. English teachers find themselves in a bind. Superficially, the endless treadmill of making students sit past papers and drilling them for a very narrow test, seems like the best bet for exam success but, in fact, it is the very narrowness of this approach that guarantees more socially advantaged children outperform their less fortunate peers.
Perhaps the quickest, simplest solution would be to start specifying content. If students were examined on what they’d actually been taught rather on some vague, ill-defined ‘skills,’ the playing field would be substantially levelled. My suggestion would be for exam boards to produce an anthology of texts to be studies and emulated. This should include material on the development of the English language and the ways in which it has changed in recent years. I would also include an opportunity to comment on grammatical and rhetorical choices made by writers. This could make it a more effective bridge to the subject as studied at A level. I’d probably want to ditch the ‘descriptive writing’ component which essentially assesses students’ ability to write stories. Quite why this is considered valuable is a bit of puzzler.
To allay concerns about narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the text, the anthology could be made available mid-way through Year 11. This would still be far from perfect, but would at least allow students to be assessed on whether they have learned a body of knowledge.
Unlike English language, the literature GCSE follows clearly prescribed content. Here though the problem is, perhaps, one of too much rather than too little specification. Currently, students are assessed on whether they are able to respond to a narrow range of literary texts, arranged around such arbitrary groupings as ‘modern texts’ ‘Victorian novels,’ poetry (which must include the Romantics) and, of course, a Shakespeare play. It’s perfectly possible for students to perform well such a course and yet know little about literature.
My suggestion is that the study of literature would both be more interesting, and more rounded, were it to include some of the concepts that underpin an expert knowledge of the subject. To this end, I would like to see students assessed on their understanding of metaphor, their appreciation of narrative techniques, their ability to see the links between structure and content and the extent to which they understand the contexts in which a literary was written and is read. On top of this, the GCSE should introduce students to the broad sweep of literature. We should expect students to know something about the orignis of literature in English as well as a nodding familiarity with some of the great works and writers. Such a course should still retain some of the close analytic skills which are so inextricably associated with literary criticism, but by opening the subject out to the study of literature itself, rather than just individual works of literature, students would be exposed to a far broader – and arguably more useful – domain of knowledge.
Clearly there’s not much flesh on these proposals. I’m not expecting anyone to leap upon my ideas as the future of English but I would like to think that possibly this might begin a debate about how we can reform the English language and literature GCSEs. If any readers are interested in discussing these ideas further I’d welcome the opportunity to improve on what I’ve laid out above.