An Open Letter to Glenys Stacey, CEO, Ofqual
Re. 2015 GCSE English Literature Specification
I write to express my deep misgivings about the new GCSE English Literature and in particular the method of assessment, which was not subject to DfE consultation.
Having gauged strength of feeling by way of an HM Government Epetition, I know that I speak for many English teachers when I suggest that the closed book examination is not the most valid way of assessing poetry appreciation. Not when the set text is an anthology of at least fifteen discrete poems, loosely connected in some specifications by a theme. The expectation that such a complex and disparate volume should be remembered well enough for close analysis in an exam is simply unrealistic, and misguided.
The DfE’s ‘Subject Content and Assessment Objectives’ (June, 2013) makes it abundantly clear that very close analysis is required. Candidates should use terms “including phrase, metaphor, meter, irony and persona, synecdoche, pathetic fallacy” to comment on their textual references. This is entirely appropriate. Equipping learners with the tools for critical analysis has always been our primary goal as teachers of English. However, never before – not even when exams were always closed book – have we expected learners to remember so much, prior to analysis. I’m sure you will agree that memorising poems in a range of forms and from a range of social and historical contexts is not the same as memorising Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as I once did for my A level.
In reality, only a tiny minority of learners with astonishing powers of memory will be able to recall fifteen poems completely enough for authentic analysis in an exam. Most will have to rely on key quotations, identified by their teachers for them as key, and will focus their efforts on making these relate to the question. Others, of course, will remember nothing at all, word for word. And rest assured this group will include some very perceptive readers, unable to demonstrate their genuine ability because of a form of assessment which requires rote learning.
For many within the English teaching community, the difference between difficulty and rigour has been lost in the new specifications. Clearly, from 2015, English Literature GCSE will be more difficult than it ever has been, but it will also be less rigorous. Learners with the critical sensitivity to fully understand the impact of a half rhyme, an extra metric foot, a line break, a full stop – they will not have the opportunity to demonstrate this sensitivity in an exam which emphasises memory over forensic engagement with text. This cannot be right. English Literature never was and must never become primarily a test of memory.
A simple change is all that is required to address these concerns; an open book anthology paper. Examiners will then see what candidates are capable of when they have in front of them the object for close analysis – rather than just a memory of that object, as with all of the other set texts.
I do hope that you are able to understand this point of view, shared by many practitioners, and that you will see that it is no way a plea for an easier, less rigorous exam. It is rather an appeal for the high quality, valid assessment of skills that our young people deserve.
I would welcome your thoughts on whether an amendment to the current Ofqual closed book ruling could be considered prior to first teaching of the new specifications in September.
- I have a complete understanding of the arrangements and would not have posted an open letter without being very sure of my ground.
- Open book examinations in English Literature have always required the provision of clean copies of set texts. The uneven playing field, now levelled through the closed book ruling, didn’t actually exist.
- Teachers and exam officers never feel burdened by arrangements which are in the best interests of learners and which enable authentic assessment.
- My letter focussed purely on the anthology paper because an anthology is a collection of whole texts. A poem is not an extract.
- Some boards (e.g. Edexcel) have opted to treat poems as extracts so that they can print one in the examination paper.
- The anthology question is comparative and candidates are limited to lower band marks if their comparison is uneven.
- This means that candidates will have to remember the second poem named in the question, but not printed, in order to closely analyse it.
- To prepare for this, they will have to remember very well indeed all fifteen disparate whole texts. The inherent difficulty of this is not acknowledged in the letter.
- Candidates who closely analyse the poem printed for them in the exam will not be rewarded with high band marks unless they can do the same with the poem they cannot see.
- Reading skills will not therefore be rewarded unless they are matched by a candidate’s ability to remember.
- This completely unnecessary emphasis on memory does learners a disservice.
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