The New GCSE - Is Reality Starting to Bite?

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GCSE English By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » GCSE English
Last updated: 12/07/2016
Tags: 100% examination, 2017, gcse english

I know we need to move on and in some respects it is pointless comparing but having just supported a North East school to prepare their Year 11 for IGCSE and for AQA cert in Literature, and then in addition to this put schemes of work and teacher training in place for the current Year 10 to support their students of the new GCSE AQA English Literature course, it is impossible not to feel a sense of injustice at the clear differences. Are our GCSE students heading for the same fate as the students who have just received their Year 6 Key Stage 2 results? It has been announced by the DFE that based on the publication of the most recent SATs results at KS2 the cohort has significantly underachieved in comparison to previous years. This is not because the students are weaker, or the teaching is of a lower standard, but because the government changed the tests so quickly and so radically, it was almost impossible to prepare students for success. Is this what the future holds for the students sitting the new GCSE examinations?

GCSE English Literature 2016

The current Year 11 students produced an extensive comparative coursework essay worth 40% of the GCSE. For the English Literature examination which is worth 60%, the current Year 11 had to select from one or two questions about ‘Journey’s End’ it was an open book exam and the nature of the text allows for a thorough exploration of every possible angle. They had one hour to complete this. They then had 45 minutes to analyse ONE unseen poem. They only have to have two assessment objectives to achieve this. We could also decide on which tier to allow for the less able students to benefit from the breakdown of the questions for ‘Journey’s End’ and a more straightforward poem in Section B. On the whole, the students felt very well prepared and had a very positive experience in the preparation for their English Literature examination.

GCSE English Literature for the 2017 Cohort

Alongside preparing Year 11, I have also been working with Year 10 to support their learning for the new English Literature and English Language exams. As far as I am concerned it is essential that these students have a full awareness of what is expected of them, consequently we decided that this is best served by making them sit as much of the course as possible at the end of Year 10. Last week they sat two one hour 45-minute examination papers in English Language, and the Modern Text and Poetry GSCE English Literature paper. The Modern Texts and Poetry, Literature paper, is  60% of their English Literature GSCE. It is closed book – the students are not allowed to take any texts into the examination. For Section A we chose ‘An Inspector Calls’ and they get a choice of two essay questions – one on theme, the other on character. But there is no extract and no text; they have to remember quotations. This is a single entry paper so all students of every ability are expected to access these questions. They have 45 minutes to complete this. The next 45 minutes is to be spent on Section B – which is based on the Power and Conflict poetry. There are 15 poems to study. They cannot take an anthology in to the examination room, but one of the fifteen poems will be on the paper,  and then  they have to compare this poem with another poem from memory from the anthology. There are limited marks available for making these links, but nevertheless, the expectation is that these comparative technique needs to be taught if the students are to have any hope of accessing the very top grades. Finally, Section C, another 45 minutes. There are two unseen poems, the first poem is worth significantly more than the poem when there needs to be a comparative element, nevertheless, yet again preparing students for this as well as all of the other skills necessary for just this paper is a daunting task. Only 8 marks are allocated to the final comparison and the very end of a 2 hour 15 minutes. There is no doubt that the skills, approach and thought processes needed to completes this examination well, are far greater than on the 2016 paper.

The Past

It is the speed that all of this has been implemented that is the other major issue. It is an injustice to the current set of students that they most likely have not had a KS3 experience that prepares them for this style and approach. The current cohort of Year 7 students do not know any different as I have also put a whole new curriculum in place at KS3 to prepare them for the new style examinations.  One Year 10 student, when they saw how much challenge there was in the new Year 7 schemes, did comment “Why didn’t we start this kind of work earlier?”. He has a valid point. This is the ultimate problem with rushing all of this through. In many respects teachers are expected to be magicians, but we are not time lords, we cannot go back with these students and use KS3 as a period of time to get them prepared for 100% examinations, we have to just do our best with the limited time and the limited resources we have been given.

The Common Inspection Framework

We were told that the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework all schools would be judged in the same way. The reality for schools is that the results and the data are the biggest indicator of a school’s success, irrespective of what the inspectors’ see on the days in school. Where the disparity becomes more apparent, and the measure for success becomes biased, is that the private schools can sit IGCSE English Language until 2018, they can also write their own Literature papers hand have them verified by Ofqual. The Welsh, Northern Irish, Jersey and Guernsey students can carry on with the old style controlled assessments and examination style papers. It is the English state school children who will be labelled the under achievers if they cannot perform sufficiently well in this new style of examination. More specifically, it is the less academic working class students who are going to really struggle to reach their academic potential in such a radical change of approach towards measuring the attainment and success of students in English. If Ofsted continue to use results as their only benchmark for success, where will this leave the English state schools?

Boundaries

The reality is that until we know boundaries it is almost impossible to judge what these students need to do to achieve their target grades, in the way we have in recent years. They are saying that the equivalent students from the 2017 cohort will achieve the same as the 2016 students, and the boundaries will reflect this. If this is the case, why bother to change the course? The boards are not releasing how grades equate to marks for a couple of years, making it almost impossible for teachers to accurately predict grades. They are saying that colleges and schools can accept  a Grade 4 as a C equivalent to get into college and to do A levels for the 2017 students. Ultimately, we have to hope that they will be kind to the guinea pigs – my own son being one of them.

Context

Schools need to be well planned for the logistics of every subject being so heavily weighted towards examinations. We also need to work on the well-being of the students in such highly pressured timesSchools must not underestimate the will of the students. One of my friends, a top student,  threw her Physics O Level exam to make sure she got a U so she wouldn’t have to enter the grade on her job applications. I also have distinct memories of when I was at school and some of the VERY CLEVER boys who just couldn’t be bothered with exams on the day simply wrote their name on the paper and went to sleep for a couple of hours until it was over…We need to have strategies in place to ensure this does not happen. There will be no coursework marks to motivate, no way of saying you have already achieved this, you only need this to get your A*/A/B/C. Teachers are going to have to put a great deal of thought into how we manage the welfare of the students in such a pressure cooker of stress and emotion. The focus has got to be technique and time management, not just content. It is also important to minimise the amount of content, to in turn minimise what they have to learn. Without modules and early entry, students will all be sitting examinations at the same time, and to cover all subjects this will take out weeks of the curriculum to put full mock programmes in place. It is necessary to allow the students to practice, but it will also limit what staff can teach, which is why many schools have changed to a three year GCSE course. We also have to hope that employers have some understanding of what this cohort of students have to do to achieve their grades in comparison with previous years. Unfortunately, I doubt that they do. Is the expectation that the 2017 cohort add a caveat to their applications to say, we sat this examination first, therefore a Grade 4 is a C?

The Future

The reality is that schools have to wholly adjust how they organise their curriculum, how they plan for assessments, how they use data, and how they predict results. Most importantly, they have to think very carefully about how they motivate students to ensure success. They will have to manage both the emotional and academic intelligence of the students. They must be taught to approach and manage the intense pressure that is unavoidable in a system with close to 100% examinations.  My daughter is in Year 6 and recently sat the new style SATs. She was totally unfazed (unlike the many tales of woe and stress I had to listen to from parents and in the press). Her analysis was that they were “much easier than the practice papers.” Although we are yet to receive her actual result. Let’s hope the new GCSE papers are ‘easier’ than the exemplar materials issued so far. With excellent preparation, lots of meaningful practice, lots of emotional support, and a focus on how to achieve linked to assessment objectives not target grades, we can cling on to the hope for success. If this does not happen, can we draw parallels with the huge drop in results and achievement at Key Stage 2, and assume this is what students and schools are going to face at GCSE? Ultimately, the difference is that not doing so well in your SATs at KS2 is disappointing, but it should not impact too greatly on your life long term. This is not the case for GCSE, it means students will have to re-sit, miss out on doing A levels, miss out on college courses, maybe feel so dejected about education that they drop out altogether.  Everyone in education needs to confront the reality of what we are facing. In particular, the exam boards have a major part to play in making the examination papers truly accessible to ensure that all of the current year 10 students have a chance of achieving the academic success they deserve.


Christine Thomas GCSE English Tutor (Durham)

About The Author

I am a highly experienced teacher of English who will endeavour to inspire you and provide you with the confidence, skills and knowledge that you need to succeed in your studies.




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