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.
We said the system for calculating GCSE results from 2015 would be confusing (see Double Weighting for GCSE English: Making Mathematicians Out of All of Us) and we were right. During Education Questions in Parliament yesterday (Monday 11 November), Education Secretary, Michael Gove, responded to a question from Shadow Minister, Tristram Hunt, in a way that highlighted the potential misunderstandings contained in the new measurement system for GCSEs, to be introduced in 2014, and detailed in the following document: Reforming the accountability system for secondary schools. What follows is our attempt to navigate a way through some of the confusion – in the full understanding that we are a long way from knowing exactly how the proposed changes will play out in actual practice.
Under pressure from Hunt to explain why pupils may well go through their GCSE years without engaging fully with significant works of Literature, Gove stated that, in the new accountability system, “English will not count unless students study both English Language and English Literature and the English Baccalaureate will only be conferred on students who study both English Language and English Literature”.
Nowhere is this stated in the document explaining the new system.
Gove’s statement does need a little unpicking. In the first part he is simply wrong: English Language without English Literature will count in various accountability measures, most significantly ‘Progress 8’ and ‘Attainment 8’, which are given most prominence in the document. The second part, about the Baccalaureate, is a little confusing. At the moment students can gain an EBacc if they study for the English GCSE, which contains within it elements of Literature, or the English Language and English Literature GCSEs separately. There is already some evidence of schools entering pupils for English Language and English Literature, without having done any preparation for the latter. When new GCSEs are assessed for the first time in 2017, because there is no combined qualification, this is likely to become a more widespread phenomenon. This is made more likely because, as the new accountability document makes clear, English Language will have double weighting in ‘Progress 8’ and ‘Attainment 8’ assessment measures only if pupils sit the English Literature exam.
It is clear that the DoE has tried valiantly to make room for English Literature in its new accountability system. However, specifying that English will count double in various measures if pupils sit English Literature is different to stating that pupils must study English Literature. We all know how the current system has been gamed by schools under pressure to appear to be doing as well as possible in GCSE league tables. This will continue to happen and may well result in pupils being entered for English Literature without ever having studied the subject. Because English Literature is not one of the core subjects, students need only achieve the minimum possible grade in order to boost their overall progress scores. This can clearly be discerned in the following statement in the accountability document:
At present, pupils must study some English Literature for any English grades to count in performance tables, and we want to retain a similar incentive for schools to offer English Literature courses in future. Requiring pupils to enter English Literature for the Language score to be double weighted retains the incentive to enter English Literature, without making this subject a requirement of the Progress 8 measure.
The key word is ‘enter’. There is no requirement for pupils to study the subject properly. Schools are likely in some instances to enter students for English Language and English Literature but not teach them the Literature. There are examples of this occurring in the current system, but with no opportunity to combine elements of Language and Literature, and the possibility of English being double weighted, this may well become more widespread.
Tristram Hunt’s point is that, under the new accountability measures, students will not be required to study any significant literary texts in full. This is incontrovertibly true based on the written documentation presented to teachers. Proposals for English Literature do not reach out warm, welcoming arms to the majority of pupils, with the result that some may not be asked to study the subject even when entered for the exam. We would love the status of Literature to be fully restored to our subject, but as the proposed changes stand, this appears to be some way from being fully achieved.