January 2014: update to original blog
Subsequent to this blog post being written, the DfE has made significant changes to the ways that English and English Literature GCSEs are measured in the accountability system. These do much to safeguard the place of English Literature in schools and are very welcome. Details of the changes are available at the following link: update to progress 8 measures.
So this is EMC’s attempt to explain how English and English Literature will be scored in the new accounting system for GCSEs, due to be first used for 2016 exam results.
It comes after several days head-scratching in the EMC office following publication by the DfE of Reforming the accountability system for secondary schools, a government response to the February to May 2013 consultation on secondary school accountability. We have read the document closely, discussed the matter widely and even taken advice from a representative at the DfE. Consequently we are fairly confident in what we have to say. And, thankfully, it looks like good news for English Literature as a subject.
The reason for the confusion stems back to the initial decision not to include English Literature in the EBacc suite of five subjects, including English and Maths. Suddenly its status was below that of Geography and Latin. More importantly, schools were less likely to enter students for the GCSE examination, posing a threat to the future sustainability of the subject.
The threat was exacerbated by proposed changes to GCSEs due for implementation in 2015, at which point English and English Literature will be treated as totally separate examinations, with no crossover elements. Not only that, but students will be able to gain a GCSE in English without having read a single substantial text. No Shakespeare, no Dickens, no novel of any kind. Clearly excluding some students from studying ‘great literature’ was not the intention of a government focused on a traditional academic curriculum.
Lobbying failed to get English Literature added to the EBacc. However, a solution of sorts has been found. It is worded like this in the accountability document, in reference to measuring schools on their students’ attainment across eight subjects:
[The eight subjects against which students will be measured include] a double weighted English element (the English Language qualification will count for this element, but will only be double weighted if the pupil has also taken English Literature)
The problem has been over how to interpret these words. Rather than try (because, so far as we can tell, there are at least four possible interpretations, some of them acting as a disincentive to study Literature), you might like to go on our explanation, which is based primarily on information given by a DfE official – and relies on details not included in the online accountability document.
The scoring system relies on thinking of the 8 GCSEs that will count towards the scoring measure as coming from 10 slots (this is the important bit not in the document). Maths automatically occupies 2 slots, so automatically results in 8 GCSEs adding up to 9 slots. If students do English Literature, English can count as a double slot and this brings the possible slots up from 9 to 10, thus effectively giving an extra ‘bonus’ slot, which will accrue a higher score. If students do badly in the Literature exam, this doesn’t need to be actually used as one of their non-core extra subjects. Another, higher grade extra subject will automatically take its place. However, the mere fact of having done Literature will mean that a bigger score is possible via the doubling of the English score and the use being made of the 10 slots as opposed to just 9.
We’re still not absolutely clear about the way this fits with the final accounting process and it does not tally exactly with what has been published, but it does seem to be a strong incentive to offer English Literature to all students. It will result in double the credit for English but it will not disadvantage students who are not good at Literature. A poor mark in Literature will not be counted in their score, if they attain a higher grade in another of their 3 extra subjects.
This is a very welcome protection of the idea of Literature being offered to all, not just to the most able. It will be a protection for Literature as a subject, from GCSE, through into A Level and into the universities and suggests that the concerns of the Common English Forum and all the English representative bodies have been listened to, not least of all staff at EMC who campaigned strongly on this issue. It does, however, seem extraordinary that such a complex and Kafkaesque system has had to be put in place to achieve this! This is just one small element in the accountability process and, if its confusing complexity is anything to go by, then the rest will mean that mathematicians and data analysts will be required in vast numbers to make the system function.
Of course, as with any other system designed on the run and not fully thought through, there is room for the law of unintended consequences to take hold: in this instance for schools to enter students for English Literature with no preparation at all, simply to ensure that their English score counts as double.
We think we’ve got this right now! If not, then apologies: we will need to employ Marcus Du Sautoy at EMC on a full-time basis to help us puzzle it out.