Ofqual are eager to see GCSE exam grades return to pre-pandemic levels. In the wake of CAG-TAG self-administered grade inflation (2020-2021) some schools have been determined to justify their often over generous marking. A member of the MMP English Language team who has been a Senior Examiner with AQA for over 20 years talks of her recent findings in marking the 2022 papers.
Having been an English teacher and GCSE examiner for more years than any prudent Jane Austen heroine could be expected to own, I have seen syllabi, foci and Assessment Objectives ebb and flow along with the prevalent political culture of the moment. These changes are inevitably followed by disproportionate panic and shifts in teaching aimed at providing the examiner with the type of responses currently deemed to be in favour.
Recently exam preparation seems to have developed some new and rather extreme characteristics. Perhaps this is a response to the pandemic and the apparent need to close the ‘gap’ in learning and progress which was significant by its absence in CAGs. Or perhaps it is due to the emergence of the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ and legends in their own lunch boxes on Edu Twitter who convince their disciples that drilled-in knowledge and instruction trump ideas, imagination and depth of understanding. Whatever the reason, a depressing number of students seem to be entering the exam hall with a cynical identikit of acronyms and hacks under the misguided impression that these will deceive examiners that they are deserving of the top grades.
In Charles Dickens ‘Hard Times’, when a student at the M’Choakumchild school is asked to define a horse the response is famously ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ The answer is factually correct but is a long way from capturing the essence of the creature. A similarly arid approach to GCSE English exams seems to be apparent in some English departments, producing responses which are turgidly mechanical and much less than the sum of their parts.
Most exam boards require students to write an extended piece on non-fiction developing their ideas in response to a particular topic or statement. The planning of some of these answers reveals the evident shortfalls of some teaching. Many students identify which punctuation marks and which of the techniques derived from DAFOREST are to be used in each paragraph without any mention of the ideas and opinions to be developed and discussed. An accurately (sometimes) placed semi-colon is a poor substitute for originality of thought and expression. When taught to plan with a tick list of techniques the resulting piece is often full of rhetoric, invented and often ridiculous statistics and no coherent structure or development of ideas. There is no short cut to these skills and some teachers would do well to remember this.
Of course, ‘plethora’ and ‘myriad’ were the pioneers of this practice and they have now been followed by amongst others ‘heinous’, ‘aspirational’ and ‘lackadaisical’.
This year a new ingredient seems to have been added to the recipe for mediocrity served up by many ill-prepared candidates: a list of supposedly sophisticated vocabulary words to be stirred into the writing whatever the subject. Of course, ‘plethora’ and ‘myriad’ were the pioneers of this practice and they have now been followed by amongst others ‘heinous’, ‘aspirational’ and ‘lackadaisical’. I don’t know where this list originated from but it has been evident through enough papers to suggest it has been shared prolifically. Again, hapless and obviously quite conscientious students often list these words as part of their planning and tick them off as they manage to incorporate them in their writing. Unfortunately, they often have only a partial understanding of these words and their meaning and the appropriateness of their use and inclusion serves only to further mangle and warp the already curdled mess being created. Of course a developed and ambitious vocabulary is a vital asset which can only be developed over time. Students being told to somehow shoe-horn in a top ten of ‘posh’ words doesn’t work and if anything weakens responses. Teachers may follow these methods in the belief that such techniques serve as a safety net and thus herd the weakest performers through the gates of attainment, but equally this practice blights the skill and flair of the more capable students who are able to achieve so much more, thus limiting their chances of accessing the higher grades.
‘Writing in turbulent times …’
English Literature scripts also provide evidence of often muddled and misguided preparation. An easy to spot current favourite is the pre-prepared introduction; a generic paragraph probably penned by the teacher which aims to provide a pseudo sophisticated opening to any question set. Examiners are always looking for individual responses to texts and teaching students to begin their answers, ‘Writing in turbulent times …’ to give a sense of context does them no favours and often limits them. I have heard a teacher state with certainty that ‘training’ students to start their essays in this way is the only way to achieve Level 9. I would disagree. If the remainder of the response does not match the standard of the ready-made introduction, then it sticks out like the proverbial and if it does it begs the question – why did the student need this ‘assistance’ in the first place?
I dislike the word ‘training’ now more often used in English teaching and exam preparation. It suggests a rigidity of approach which is stifling. English Literature dropped out of the Top Ten A’ Level subjects for the first time this year and I wondered if the strait-jacket of some GCSE teaching is partly responsible. At the risk of sounding like some evangelical out-dated hippy, students in English need to be given the opportunity to explore their own ideas and develop their responses in a way that is not hindered by teaching reliant on a seemingly never-ending PowerPoint and a predictable booklet.
This summer I have marked thousands of GCSE responses and I do so throughout the year. Some are refreshingly brilliant but too many students seem to have been taught to apply certain formulae and structures to their answers as a priority rather than ensuring they understand the text. This doesn’t work and is no substitute for teaching which allows students to develop their own ideas and a deep love of language.
To go back to Dickens and the M’Choakumchild school – children are not horses and can’t be trained to perform – this approach may lead them to water but it will not make them think.