The new draft A Level Literature specifications: some first impressions from The English and Media Centre

EMC recently produced an early ‘first impressions’ blog on the new draft GCSE specifications for 2015. In some ways, that was a rather easier task than for the new A Level specifications because the truth is that with GCSE, the specification writers’ hands have been well and truly tied by the rigidity of the requirements imposed by the DfE and OFQUAL. The scope for inventiveness and originality was severely limited.

By contrast, when it comes to A Level, the story is rather different. The Literature A Level specifications look quite distinctive and different, as they did in 2008 but perhaps even more so this time round. The good thing about variety is that it allows teachers to find a specification to suit their approach to the subject and, unlike with GCSE, there is plenty of variety in the choice of set texts as well as the way the subject discipline is conceived.
We’ll be poring over the detail over the next few weeks in preparation for our usual ‘Choosing and Planning’ courses in the Autumn (see below) but a ‘first impressions’ look at the Literature specs at this stage might indicate a few highlights and things for you to look out for.

But first we should explain that EMC won’t be commenting in this way on the Lang/Lit specifications. Our own strong commitment to our OCR (EMC) specification would make a nonsense of any pretence at impartiality. With the Literature specifications, however, we can honestly say we have no loyalties to any one Awarding Body. We’ll leave it to others to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the Lang/Lit specifications and hope that ours meets with favour!
As for Language A Level, we’ll try to get on to that sometime soon!

The Literature Specifications – EMC’s First Thoughts
Please note that these comments are based on draft specs, not final ones. Also, do check back on the specs yourself to confirm the details.

1. More of the same or a radically new approach?
Most of the Awarding Bodies seem to have recognised that there is a ‘flavour’ to their current specifications that teachers who have chosen them probably liked that is worth retaining. So, for instance, AQA A continues to offer Love through the Ages as a compulsory component, putting WW1 and Modern Times (a new take on ‘The Search for Modern Identity’?) into another paper as two options. AQA A makes a big play of the study ‘in and across time’. This is clearly a specification that has wanted to change as little as possible and is very recognisable.

By contrast, AQA B, has retained much of the underlying philosophy of its old specification – in particular its strong generic focus and emphasis on theory – but with some new spins. The Critical Anthology is still there but has been widened out to include more of a range of critical theories. The focus on the Dramatic Genres of Tragedy (from the early years of the current specification) and Comedy (from more recent years), have been retained but this time as a choice of genre and widening out beyond Drama. Does this potentially fall into the trap of offering some texts that aren’t quite appropriate for the genre? There is also a new paper offering a choice between Crime Writing and Political Writing. The AQA B specification wears its heart on its sleeve and, as before, there is a strong sense of there being an underlying set of principles behind it.

Edexcel has some new features, in particular, the new generic focus on drama in their first paper, where students choose between comedy and tragedy, supported by a Critical Anthology. This seems to draw on some of the style of the AQA B approach but rather than extending these genres across drama, prose and poetry, it concentrates study on drama. As in the current spec, there is still a thematic slant, in the new prose paper.
The OCR specification retains much from the 2008 specification, for instance the paper including Shakespeare, and pre-1900 Drama and Poetry, where students compare one text from both genres. Likewise, the openness of the non-examined unit, with three texts studied, mirrors the current A Level coursework, as does the referencing of some critical texts as supportive reading. One interesting change is the return to something reminiscent of OCR’s specification pre-2008, where students were examined on a chosen topic, such as American Literature 1880-1940, the Gothic, Dystopia and others.

Some of the unique elements of the current WJEC specificaton – an unusual and imaginative approach to coursework involving keeping a writing journal, and the idea of reviewing approaches across the whole course, seem to have disappeared. In this way, the new WJEC specification looks quite different to the old specification. The question is whether it has retained the features liked by its current centres and got rid of those that were less popular, or risked losing the essential flavour of the current exam?

2. Approach to unseen texts
Most of the specifications weave unseen texts into papers in just one of a bigger component. It’s worth looking hard at what’s expected. AQA A has a comparative question on two unseen poems plus an unseen extract on the WW1 or Modern Times paper. AQA B has just one unseen element in its Texts and Genres Paper (Crime or Political Writing). Edexcel has one unseen question on a modern poem. OCR’s unseen is a prose extract, related to the prose Comparative and Contextual Study (American Literature, Gothic etc.). WJEC stands out as having a whole paper devoted to unseen texts, with 2 questions, one on poetry the other on prose.

3. Length and number of exams
The OFQUAL requirement is for a minimum of 5 hours of external exams. WJEC stands out as having more exam time – three exams, each of 2 hours (6 hours in total). Some split the exams into 3, others have just 2 bigger exams. WJEC’s additional hour of examining will need careful scrutiny to see whether it’s justified. As with GCSE, it’s worth looking hard at what’s expected in the time allotted, rather than just how many hours are required. Longer doesn’t always equate with harder, if the extra time gives students more time to do the task well.

4. Coursework
All of the specifications have, perhaps unsurprisingly, chosen to use the
maximum allowable coursework weighting of 20%. AQA A’s is a single 2500 word comparative essay. AQA B’s is two pieces of writing on 2 separate texts, in the light of ideas in the Critical Anthology. Edexcel has given the option of either a single extended comparative piece or a shorter one accompanied by a piece of re-creative writing. OCR’s is 2 tasks on 3 texts– one either Close Reading or Re-creative Writing, the other a comparative essay on 2 texts (3000 words in total). WJEC’s is a single essay on 2 prose texts, 1 pre-2000 the other post-2000 (2500 – 3500 words)

5. AS and Co-teachability
This is a huge issue and not one that can be explored properly in a short blog but will certainly be one for discussion and exploration at our courses in the Autumn. Some specs have clearly tried to make the AS as compatible as possible with the full A Level to allow for co-teachability, others less so. But the viability of AS goes much wider than just the specifications. Some centres have been talking about not entering anyone for AS, on grounds of cost and the practicality of setting up viable and stable groupings. Others seem to be planning to have students co-taught, to allow some to do AS and others the full A Level.

The blog hasn’t touched on many significant issues, not least of all the range of set texts and the amount of choice available – some specs give much wider choice than others. Nor has it looked in detail at the subtler nuances of particular papers, or at the critical issues around the nature of questioning in the SAMs and what they reveal about the validity and teachability of assessment elements. Once the specifications are ratified, we’ll be doing that finer comb-through and hope to share our findings with teachers, to help with that final decision about which specification suits you best!

You might like to know:
The English and Media Centre will be running the following courses to help you to choose your new GCSE and A Level Specifications:





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