Surviving the GCSE English Reform

In my last post, I reflected on how important data tracking is to student progress and how challenging the last year had been without grade boundaries to lean on in order to track progress accurately. For my next few posts, I’ll be delving deeper into my personal experience of the GCSE English reform, how we survived the year, and what I would do differently this year.

I’m not ashamed to say that when faced with a new challenge I like to do my research thoroughly and plan strategically. I recently (two months ago) had a baby and let's just say it wasn't a coincidence that my baby was due to coincide with the end of the school year...

Changes = Choices

Changes means new choices. This can be incredibly exciting; an opportunity to refresh your subject knowledge and grapple with new concepts. Absolutely. However, the weight of these choices rests heavy on our shoulders. It's a huge decision, with many factors influencing the choice you make. I wonder if, in light of results this year, how many English faculties will be switching not only exam boards, but chosen texts studied for Literature?

What influenced my decision? We had been delivering the CIE iGCSE English Language course for 3 years and loved teaching it as much as the kids loved studying it. They loved the freedom of creative writing; the sense of voice they gained from writing, learning and performing their speaking and listening speeches; the straightforwardness of the reading paper. In terms of Literature (which is where the only real choice is), we had been delivering AQA: Of Mice and Men, An Inspector Calls, Character & Voice poetry and the Shakespeare text of the class teacher's choice (mine was always Hamlet, as the kids loved doing psychoanalytical readings and they always got brilliant outcomes from the complexity of these readings).

Some teachers have celebrated the death of Of Mice and Men from the curriculum. To them OMAM was their Groundhog Day – their Godot. It wasn't to me. OMAM is an onion text; it has different layers that can be accessed by all students. At its heart, it's a wonderful story that continues to be hugely relevant today.

I've taught OMAM to the whole spectrum. I've taught the 'George and Lennie are friends and Lennie does a bad thing' version to Entry Level students who loved the simple story of friendship and can easily access Steinbeck's binary descriptions of the two protagonists. At the other extreme, I've taught students about the crisis of masculinity; the rise of capitalist America; Queer readings of the male relationships; feminist criticisms of Curley's wife; and even a bit of post-structuralism.

We all know our issue with the reformed specs text choices. They are too focused on the nineteenth century; full of clunky language and plot lines that are often irrelevant and quite frankly daunting to your typical teenager (especially when you throw EAL, SEND, PP, etc into the mix). Don't get me wrong, the majority of the authors on the specs are amongst my favourites – I studied them at university for both my BA and MA – but then that's precisely it. They are arguably more appealing to the adult specialist than a 15-year-old who spends most of their day on Snapchat.

But that's our job, isn't it? To engage young minds to have a deep burgeoning love of literature? Yes, of course! But to do that and have them ready to sit a hoop-jumping formatted exam where they must meet/exceed their target grade, whilst sitting 30 other exams for other subjects? Well, that's bloody hard.

So, you have to be strategical in your choice. I've had a few conversations (in person and online) about this topic and there is no doubt that it is a contentious issue. This is what we chose and why:

An Inspector Calls

This was a no-brainer. With all the other texts changing we needed some stability, so continuing with AIC gave my faculty some much needed confidence – and ultimately that is essential in securing the best outcomes for students. Confident teachers lead to confident students. For that reason, we kicked off Year 10 with the play so we at least had an extra six weeks to gather resources and get our heads around the other changes.

It's a decent play – it's universally relevant that your actions affect others. Yes, the language is weak in comparison to other texts, but I have a tried and tested method for getting round this (you'll have to wait to hear about that!)

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

This was where we had the most choice. This is where most English HoFs will passionately defend their choice. I'm not going to say anything negative about the other texts, but to me Jekyll and Hyde was always the most obvious choice.

  1. It's short. Less than 100 pages, and for the lower ability students you don't even need to read all of it.
  2. There aren't many characters. *Spoiler alert*: Jekyll is Hyde, Hyde is Jekyll. For most lower/middle ability students you only need to understand that basic premise about the characters.
  3. The peripheral characters are distinct enough to not confuse students. Utterson (the slightly dull lawyer), Dr Lanyon (the old friend opposing Jekyll's experiment), etc.
  4. The plot and themes are straightforward. Mad scientists, pathetic fallacy, Science vs. Religion. But just like OMAM the places you can take it are incredible: Atavism, Fin de Siecle anxiety, Queer readings, to name a few. It's beautifully rich but only if you want it to be. It can still be "mad scientist takes potion and becomes monster" if you need it to be.
  5. The potential extracts are obvious. There are lovely, meaty bits of writing that are packed full of rich language and memorable multiple-purpose quotes ("devil", "pale and dwarfish", etc).


I heaved a huge sigh of relief come exam day when we weren't caught up in the Romeo & Juliet debacle. I may have just named my son Montague (well, it's Monty after Monty Don really) but that doesn't mean I think it's the best choice for playing this exam game. Quite simply, there are too many characters – as we found out – no peripheral character is safe. At least in Macbeth (just like Jekyll & Hyde) we are playing with themes of duality, so often our two protagonists double up. Importantly, there are lots of chunky soliloquies with again, meaty, memorable language.

Whatever choices your faculty has made, it has to be what is right for the students. We know that for many these texts are not accessible or relevant, but at the moment this is what we are left to deliver and we have to get it right. I'm proudest of the fact that last year many of our Year 11s performed better in Literature than Language. In my opinion Literature is the more challenging qualification and the fact that they engaged with such difficult texts so passionately – and had genuinely brilliant interpretations of what they were reading – simply makes me enormously proud of them.

These are important choices and I feel that we made the right ones for our students. Do you?