English GCSE: A memory test or a launch pad for critical thinking?

English GCSE: A memory test or a launch pad for critical thinking?

Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, Victorian love poetry and A View From A Bridge. These literary texts trip off the tongue; they have become divorced from their own contextual references and instead lie preserved in the formaldehyde of the British classroom and if your child has, is currently or will be taking their GCSE English exams I can guarantee they will be exposed to these or a variation of the above works. What’s startling for me when reflecting on this seemingly banal fact, is that these were my set texts when I took my own GCSEs a mere…eleven years ago! So not much has changed?

According to Michael Gove who became education secretary in 2010 exams have become more academic and rigorous under his watch. I would argue that this a myth perpetuated to parents and guardians. The intention of this untruth is to convince caregivers and the public at large that the government is responsible for reshaping the education system into one where British teenagers have no choice but to transform into world leaders in traditional career fields. Of course, even if this claim were true, all children and teenagers are different so this standardised approach to education would still be ill-fitting. In actual fact, this fallacy, somewhat ironically (not the government’s intention), ‘stresses out’ caregivers because they are led to believe their children are getting a raw deal as the exams must be much harder. I believe that both of these perceptions are inaccurate and that the truth is much worse.

Yes, students are getting a raw deal but not because exams are harder. After all I studied the same texts as they do now, even though we apparently have a brand spanking new curriculum. Instead this wrong has been exacerbated, because the way in which they are taught and assessed, is an insult to the students and the subject itself.

In 2019, 3,500 fewer students did English Literature for A-Level than in the previous year. This decline is sharp, painful for me to witness from a personal perspective and perhaps most tragically, not a surprise. There are multiple socio-cultural and economic factors that have affected attitudes to English Literature that I have observed coming into play but in this post I am focusing on the most internal and essential reasons which stem from the curriculum. The most obvious difference between 2008 and 2019, is that students are not given unmarked copies of their texts in the exam, as I was. This means that English literature exams are in part a memory test. Students spend vast amounts of time revising quotes or even memorising whole poems so that their perception of the work of literature inevitably becomes skewed and atomised. The nuanced argument which Michael Gove claims to seek is near on impossible to conjure within these parameters. Through this narrow prism, interpretations of the novels (etc..) can only be limited because quotes are remembered in a tactical fashion to ensure that they can be directly correlated with mark schemes or the dreaded assessment objectives that schools diligently shove down students’ throats.

Rightly concerned and well-meaning parents may in part challenge the argument I have been presenting and say: ‘I don’t want the English exam to be academic, you are focusing on the wrong problem here. English is not my child’s strongest subject, I’m concerned about the stress they are under but not quality of the curriculum itself. I want them to do well without breaking their neck’. This argument is understandable and I empathise with its implicit sentiments: I want my students to perform well in the exams, not just in terms of A level or job prospects, but also because it validates their sense of self-worth and esteem, making them realise that their contributions are valuable and that they have it in them to have a bright and successful future. However crucially, this well-meaning and popular response to the current curriculum, is a consequence of the despair that has been created by this competitive, tick box, faux-academic climate. Instead, I would contend it actually limits the facilities and prospects of students of all abilities in English Literature. Meanwhile in a state of panic, caregivers cannot have clarity or think in terms of innovation, instead parents are tricked into becoming protectionist.

Furthermore, this perpetual stress conflicts directly with the role of academic education itself (this is another debate but at a risk of assuming): to inspire, clarify and challenge effectively within a dynamic framework.  The current curriculum feeds short term insecurities as students and parents are relieved that there is a formula for answering a question. However, the long-term effects of such a curriculum are now being felt in all sectors of society and in the lack of uptake at A level. I feel that this curriculum can stunt students, reducing their self-esteem and ability to think independently and critically, which indirectly makes the pathway to adulthood rockier. Students learn in school that success and relative happiness comes from following a generic formula, whereas in adult life, we are confronted with a plethora of experiences and choices which demonstrate that success and happiness are far from linear.

On a microcosmic level, when one is told there is only one valid points-worthy answer to a question in an arts based subject, or when a student is given a set text that has been rinsed on the internet from all its meanings, an implicit sense of betrayal is felt by students of all abilities. The underlying message the student is being fed is that they are not capable of nuanced responses, they are too naive to grapple with the complex emotions found in literary texts and that rigorous independent thinking leads to failure and socio-cultural and economic ostracisation. Simply put: don’t think for yourself, that’s dangerous. Educare, the Latin root of the word education, means to draw out what is within. I believe this is the essence of teaching and learning, because I’ve observed that even students who struggle with subjects learn best when the idea stems from something they can see and relate to. Yet, this foundational idea is being stamped on by our present curriculum.

In short, I would discard the practice of students being marked on what quotes they can remember, which arguments they can copy and paste and what language devices they can ornamentally slot into an essay for a green tick. Instead after some careful thought, I might advocate a curriculum where texts are different every year so there is no prescriptive way to answer a question, where multiple high and low brow cultural references would be engaged with to answer said questions and where students are marked on how they formulate their own arguments and the quality of their personal ideas in relation to the literature.

A good English curriculum should enable students to develop a practice and discourse where they can apply complex problem solving strategies, which engage knowingly with objective knowledge, to successfully evaluate the quality of ideas, strategies and arguments that are presented to us all on a daily basis from politicians, advertisers and in the sphere of work.

Maybe with these sorts of changes, exams would actually be harder in a real sense? But they could be a lot more rewarding and students would be given permission to be somewhat original. Most interestingly, through implementing these sorts of changes I think we would actually be preparing children to feel mobile and robust in adulthood. And this is the objective which seems to unite all adults who are worried that their children aren’t coping because of these hard GCSEs.


Rebecca is an English and Drama tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with her, or one of our other excellent tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006, email us at [email protected], or complete the form on the ‘Contact Us’ page.

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