On first hearing phrases like ‘100% exam’ and ‘not tiered’, like many secondary school teachers, I took a sharp intake of breath and made a facial expression not dissimilar to what I did when watching Donald Trump’s most recent presidential bid. Naturally, the potential for damage is far greater in Trump’s case…or is it? Many teachers have expressed deep concern about the radical changes to recent GCSE qualifications – although, as a colleague recently commented, are we actually harking back to the far more traditional examinations that existed before coursework and controlled assessments? A time when school was, according to many, actually difficult.
In English, students will be required to learn content for two years, at the end of which they will take four exam papers – two in English Language and two in English Literature. The exams are closed book and students will be expected to know plays like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet well enough to answer an essay question with close reference to the text. Students will also be studying an anthology of poetry, a nineteenth century novel and a modern text or play. In addition to these texts, students will also look at a range of non-fiction articles. Put altogether is, to say the least, rather overwhelming. A student from a supportive background with natural academic ability is likely to fly with this structure where a love of reading will carry them along like Harry Potter on a Nimbus 3000. The fact is, many students are obviously not like Harry Potter. This new approach to examination and progression will truly test teachers with their knowledge of how students learn best and how differentiation can be applied to its full potential and most effectively.
Despite a slightly daunting outlook, there are small gems to find. For example, students will be provided with extracts specifically chosen to aid them in remembering other important aspects of the text. There are also opportunities for higher achieving students to push themselves, but if not attempted, will not have a significant impact on a student’s overall mark. Most importantly, teachers have been given the freedom to read, absorb and enjoy (insert further teaching clichés) some incredible literature with their students which, given the intensity of our now nearly extinct current curriculum, was rather difficult to embrace. Yes, it will be tough, but change is good. For those who are not able to access this level of challenge at all, the provision Step Up to English has been developed to ensure that schools are able to provide a path to success for all students. This is not a hundred percent horror, but a hundred percent opportunity for many students – and teachers.