GCSE English Literature Exams
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 200299 relating to GCSE English literature exams.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
The more perceptive among us will remember that we have been here before. We debated this issue just before the general election. I think it was on the last full day of business. Understandably, the debate was rather rushed and the Petitions Committee did not have time to do any public engagement on the matter.
When we received a new petition in this Parliament, we therefore decided to schedule it for debate and to conduct some public engagement. We had a huge response, showing that people believe that how we examine and test pupils’ knowledge is not just a technical matter; it says much about the things we think are important—the skills and knowledge that we value. People are also increasingly worried about the mental health of our young people. I will come to that later in my remarks.
There are many exam systems throughout the world, and they do not necessarily relate to the success or failure of the education system. On the one hand, there are systems such as those used in Singapore and Hong Kong, where there is rigorous and frequent testing. Those are very good at some things—there is no doubt about that. However, when I was in Singapore some years ago, people asked us how to teach creativity, because they thought they had ironed that out of their system. On the other hand, in Finland nobody sits an exam until they are 16 and it is viewed as one of the best education systems in the world—on some measures, the best. I do not say that because I think Ministers can import exam systems from elsewhere. In fact, over the years we have had far too much of Ministers going abroad and trying to bring in a system from a completely different cultural background. I am simply saying that how we examine is a choice—one choice among many.
It is clear from the feedback that both parents and teachers are worried about the impact of frequent testing and the type of testing we have on young people’s mental health. Way back in 2016, what was then the Association of Teachers and Lecturers did a survey of its members. Over half of the respondents said that they knew one student who had tried to self-harm. One of the teachers said that there had been
“a huge increase in physical symptoms of stress and incidents of self-harm.”
On the other hand, the chief inspector of schools has told The Times Educational Supplement that it is a “myth” that children in England are over-tested. It is difficult to know who to believe: the teachers who are on the ground every day or a chief inspector with no teaching qualifications at all, whose nomination was rejected by the Select Committee on Education. I will leave people to make their choice.
It is true that there is a lot of mental ill health among young people today. The charity YoungMinds published figures showing that one in four children and young adults displays symptoms of mental ill health, and that one in 10 children and one in five young adults has a diagnosable mental health disorder.
When we did our public engagement on this subject, we found that mental health was an issue for many people. We carried out some public engagement with pupils from Christ the King Catholic High School in Preston, to whom we are very grateful. Our staff used those responses to design an online survey for students, teachers and parents. There were extra boxes for teachers to allow them to make comments. We had more than 16,300 responses. Of the students involved, 54% said that they thought about exams most of the time and 53% said that they were stressed most of the time because of their exams.
Interestingly, that was not the prime reason for people wanting a change in the system. The main reason was that they felt exams tested memory rather than understanding —77% of students and 84% of teachers told us that. That gives people like me pause. I grew up in a system—like most people here, I suspect—where memory was important. We had to remember lots of things for exams. I was lucky: I did not find it particularly difficult. However, we need to ask not what was suitable for us, but what is suitable for the next generation. We need to ask ourselves: is it really necessary to have so much emphasis on memory in a society where information is available at the touch of a button? That question hardly ever gets asked in our system.
We are often dependent—this has happened under both political parties—on the whims of whichever Secretary of State for Education happens to be in office at the time. We all remember the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who decided that history should be “our island story”, ignoring the fact that that story is probably seen very differently in different parts of these islands and by different communities within them. He also took a sudden dislike to “Of Mice and Men” being on the curriculum. I do not know why—perhaps he was hit over the head with a Steinbeck novel when he was small and has been traumatised ever since.
Because of that, we have seen frequent changes to our exam system. We had the English baccalaureate. We had tiering, which came and went. We had coursework and then the abolition of coursework. Then we had linear courses with exams at the end. It is no surprise, therefore, that the current Secretary of State has had to promise teachers that there will be no more changes, in an attempt to woo people into the profession. Frankly, I am surprised there are any teachers left. In all this noise, what does not get asked is: what do children need to learn and how do they need to learn it to fit them for the society that they are growing up in, rather than the one that we grew up in?
I have a terrible memory problem. I can barely remember one thing from one day to another. The reason for the change we have made is to try to raise standards. Has the hon. Lady considered the impact of this change on standards?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I will come to it later in my speech. I do not think that there is any evidence that it raises standards per se. In an exam, we measure certain things. The question is, are we measuring the right things?
In saying that, I am not at all an advocate of dumbing down. When I taught English, my students studied Shakespeare from when they came into secondary school, they read “Beowulf”—in translation, I hasten to add; I was not trying to teach 12-year-olds old English—and they read Chaucer, even when they were not in the exam. Ironically, the evidence we are getting from a lot of teachers is that the emphasis on drilling people for an exam, and the tyranny of that, is sucking creativity out of the system and narrowing people’s focus, rather than widening it. While I do not believe that any great literature is inaccessible if it is taught in the right way, I am an advocate of asking the right questions. An English degree teaches one to do that. It cannot be expressed in monetary terms, in the way some people would have it, but it is a useful skill.
One question is whether what children learn and the way they are tested is the right way forward. At the moment, they have to study a Shakespeare play—I do not think anyone would argue with that; Shakespeare is our leading dramatist—and 15 poems, with most teachers thinking there is a reasonable selection that engages children. They need to study a 19th-century novel. That gives me pause for thought—why the 19th century? It was not when the novel began or when most of the experimentation was done. They then study another text—a modern text or a play—and they have to do unseens as well. We test them on all that literature at the end of the course. There is no coursework or interim exams. We have to ask whether that is the right way forward.
When this system was first mooted, Ofqual said:
“We do not believe there are any skills in the draft content for English literature that could not be validly assessed by written exam, set and marked by the exam board.”
No doubt that is true of what is in the curriculum, but the issue is whether that is the right thing to be testing. From what they have said, the Government seem to have what I can only describe as a rather strange approach. At one point they said:
“Students should not be misled into believing that they will get good marks simply by memorising and writing out the poems or texts they have studied.”
I hope not—that has never been the case in any English literature exam. However, they went on to say:
“Students will not need to learn and remember the exact words of poems or texts by heart.”
I am afraid that misunderstands the subject. In great literature, the exact words are important. Great writers choose words with precision, rejecting alternatives. An approximation will not do, because it does not have the same levels of meaning. When studying English literature, or any literature, the exact words matter. To suggest otherwise is to downgrade the subject. It shows what the Government say they do not want: a lack of academic rigour. In this exam, are our young people facing a test of memory or a test of understanding?
All literature exams involve some feat of memory. Students have to get to know the text well; they have to read it, re-read it and internalise it. Nor can we take the stress out of exams completely. In fact, some stress is good for us. We have to face stress in life and we have to learn to deal with it. The young people who responded to our survey recognised that. Many of them suggested that they should have more education in how to deal with stress. Nor is all stress that our young people suffer because of exams. There are lots of stresses in modern life that impact on young people and create a toxic environment for them. I am not by any means suggesting those things. I am, however, suggesting that unnecessary stress is caused because of the emphasis on memory.
The teachers who responded to our survey were very clear that the exam is in large part about memory. One of them said:
“The argument that students do not need to quote is simply untrue”.
“I have found it to be more of a memory test for my pupils.”
One teacher pointed out that to analyse the language in a text, students have to remember it. They have to be able to remember the rhyme schemes in poems to compare them, and doing so is in the mark scheme. The fear among many teachers was that this was sucking the joy out of the subject. As one said:
“We are systematically sucking the love of literature and poetry out of students.”
“We are killing their love of English.”
In the current system, we have an examination that imposes unnecessary stress—as I said, some stress is inevitable—on students; that relies largely on memory, rather than on understanding; and that, according to many teachers who responded to us, is not fostering a love of literature at all, but killing it. If, in an exam, students are going to analyse character in a novel, compare two poems or contrast two scenes in a play, they have to remember them. On the other hand, if there are open-book exams with clean texts, more questions can be asked. Contrary to what the Government think, it is arguable that open-book exams test higher levels of skill. We could actually start to ensure that questions are designed to bring out the best in the brightest students. The Government seem to want to do that, hence their new grading system, but are unwilling to will the means.
An open-book exam allows students to evaluate, analyse and synthesise knowledge, rather than simply remember it. Many teachers who responded to us felt that the current system, far from what was intended, does not allow their brightest students to display what they can do sufficiently well. Open-book exams are far from an easy option. A lot of work still has to be done on the text beforehand. At a very basic level, the students have to know where to look in order to finish on time. Most of the teachers who responded thought that it was a better system. One said that
“open book exams allow for questions that explore deeper understanding of ideas, historical context, inference and themes”.
By contrast, one teacher who recently retired, but had 37 years’ experience teaching English, which should be respected, said that the current curriculum
“narrows and stultifies their thinking—and their lessons”.
Arguably, open-book exams would not only ask more demanding questions of students, but put them in a situation that is closer to what they will experience in real life. No academic writes a paper without reference to anything else, purely from memory. No one writes a business report or prepares a submission like that. We all have access to texts and information while we do such things. I do not even think that the exams prepare our young people properly for employment. Interestingly, one of our respondents told us:
“As an employer as well as a parent, the skills I’m seeking in employees are the ability to analyse, to infer, to construct an argument and so on, not whether they can remember entire texts.”
Of course, students are not asked to remember entire texts in the exam, but they are asked to remember a large part of them.
With respect to the Government and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who talked about standards, we would be able to test higher levels of ability better with a different kind of examination. When I was teaching, I noticed that it was possible for my best students not to do as well in their GCSE exams as they would do at A-level, where they were allowed to do much more analysis on their own. The Government are falling into a trap of thinking that what we have done in the past is the best way for the future.
When I was training to be a teacher, everyone knew a story about the sabre-toothed curriculum. It was about a tribe that taught its children to hunt sabre-toothed tigers, trap little woolly mammoths and fish in the river, until the ice came and the sabre-toothed tigers moved away, the little woolly mammoths died and the river iced over. But the tribe still taught its children to hunt sabre-toothed tigers, trap little woolly mammoths and fish in the river. One day, an iconoclast among the tribe said, “Why are we doing this? There aren’t any sabre-toothed tigers, little woolly mammoths or fish in the river.” The elders said, “We don’t do it because we want our children to hunt sabre-toothed tigers, trap little woolly mammoths and or fish in the river. We do it because it is character building.” The tribe carried on doing that, and died.
The lesson for examinations is simple. We need to look at what will equip our children for the future, not for the past. I hope the Minister will think seriously about that, because the evidence from people trying to work in the system is that it is far from satisfactory.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, but it is a surprise to be called quite so early. As the debate is about GCSE English literature and I am a Member of Parliament from Scotland, I do not plan to speak at great length, but I will give some thoughts. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her eloquent and detailed introduction. She covered the vast majority of the issues to be considered, of which there are many, such as rote learning, mental health, the difficulty of examining and the examination system.
I will begin with the mental health issues and the pressures on young people. There is no doubt that young people who undergo state exams suffer from mental health difficulties. Many schools have mental health support systems in place, where young people can go to take time out and discuss their issues. During the many years in which I was a teacher in Scotland, the curriculum underwent a transformation. We went from a situation where everything depended on the final exam to having an element of continual assessment, and finally to both playing a part with a chunk of continual assessment that counted towards the final exam.
I want to pursue the mental health issue, because I am a bit confused by the debate so far. We accept that students have mental health issues, which include a lot of mental health stress, but that is not entirely related to examinations. Is the hon. Lady aware of any work that has subdivided out mental health stress and tried to assess where it comes from? Otherwise, it is impossible to say, “This bit relates to exams and this bit does not.”
Of course, unless the stress is examined in great detail, it is difficult to see where it is. When we examine the number of instances of mental health problems that young people experience at different stages of their school career, we can see that young people in early secondary school have fewer issues than those who are at the point of taking national exams. There are definite links between the examination regime and young people’s mental health. There are a vast number of other contributing factors, including poverty, family background and social standing—many different things—but there is increased incidence of poor mental health among young people sitting state exams.
What I saw—this is anecdotal, and comes without a background of evidence—was that when young people had an element of continual assessment and a final exam, they understood the parameters under which they were operating. We saw more difficulties when there were constant submissions, deadlines to be met throughout the year and different deadlines in different subjects that meant that young people faced continual pressure that culminated in a final exam. Continual assessment can increase mental health difficulties.
The hon. Member for Warrington North questioned whether it was necessary for young people to retain a huge amount of information in their head when they can readily google it and click on the relevant page. In Scotland, in 2004 or 2005, it was decided to provide young people with a relationship sheet, which was basically a bunch of formulae, because it was realised that many had difficulty memorising them. In physics, we are not trying to examine young people’s memory but how they apply formulae, whether they can problem solve and whether they can think outside the box. It was considered that the sheet would be helpful, although there was a huge amount of scepticism among physics teachers, who thought that it was dumbing down.
In fact, giving young people the formula sheet allowed them to be more creative and to think about different examples. It also allowed us to introduce open-ended questions in exams, which were not just about young people showing that they had remembered a formula, sticking the numbers in and getting an answer. It allowed us to examine them more deeply on their physics knowledge, and the exam was improved greatly as a result. We saw great increases in critical thinking—their ability to evaluate and to discuss different experimental set-ups. It was a huge success.
Data sheets or formula sheets are still used in physics exams in Scotland. They are always given out at the start of the exam in the form of a booklet. Importantly, they come from the exam board—the Scottish Qualifications Authority—which administers them at the start of every exam diet. When they are given out with the exam paper, they are pristine and untouched—there is no way to tamper with them. After that, they can be taken away and used in departments. New ones must be used every year to ensure that they cannot be interfered with.
To relate that to English, I have a great deal of sympathy for the petition and I understand the points behind it, but I worry about the volume of information that would have to be taken into the exam. There are 15 poems and a number of texts, so how many pieces of information will young people take in?
We have heard that the exact words matter when we are talking about English literature—and they do. Simply shoehorning in a quote to try to make a point does not always work if there is not a degree of understanding behind that quote. There has to be a deep understanding of the text, but that can be shown without quoting directly, or with possible differences or slight mistakes in the quote. Having said that, Burns, who is part of the Scottish curriculum, famously said:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold—
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Would that have meant the same if he had said, or if a pupil quoted in an exam, “a bunch of sell-outs”? I am not sure that it would.
On the issue of practicality, how can we set an open-book exam where young people do not have to memorise all those texts and where the invigilator knows that the information is clean and untampered with? How big a desk and how big a space would be required? All those things are important. If we did as in the physics exam in Scotland and had a short booklet with lists of quotes, that would stifle creativity far more, because we would be telling the young people which quotes were important. I question whether that is what is required, or indeed desired.
In addition, open-book exams take longer. If young people are given a dictionary in a modern language exam, it takes them longer to look through it than to just get on with it. How much additional stress will we cause young people by extending exams to hours and hours, rather than there being a finite time in which they have to produce quotes? There is some merit in having quotes to which young people are able to refer, but I question whether having an open-book exam for something like English literature practically can become a reality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her leadership on the Petitions Committee and for her excellent speech. Her clear pedagogical knowledge shone through, as did that of the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). They are both, like me, former teachers.
The new structure of the GCSE English literature closed-book exams raises issues for students and teachers. It is not simply about the subject being made more difficult than it needs to be; it is about the very reason schools teach English literature in the first place. It is an incredible achievement that the petition received 160,000 signatures; it shows that Parliament is being held to account by people who are interested in the subject.
Literature enlightens us. When the matter was last debated in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) referred to the popular quote:
“Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living”.
That is a powerful quote. Literature is not science and it does not make sense to test it in this way. All we create by doing so is a memory test, a test of the ability to parrot quotes, not to truly understand their depth and meaning. I was hoping to challenge the Minister to quote some of his English GCSE, A-level or degree-level literature, but then I thought that he might be able to challenge me back. We have to be careful. Politicians are always being asked to recite their times tables live on national television—or not, as the case may be.
English literature at its best is a way of understanding our world and learning the skills to engage in it. It teaches us research and writing skills, to express ourselves better and be analytical in our thinking. It helps us to build arguments, analyse, probe and read between the lines—skills used exceptionally well by many Members of this place every day. What a place this would be if we all memorised our speeches and parroted them out as pre-learned text. Nuance, banter and humour would be lacking, and the heat and passion of debate would be entirely lost. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North is probably one of the finest speakers in the House. She can speak at some length without referring to her notes—eruditely, I quickly add. We are not expected to memorise every word we say here, nor should we be, so why do we expect pupils in our schools to do so? Why do we want students to remember up to 250 quotes? What does that tell us about our students other than that they have a good memory?
Closed-book examinations for GCSE English literature encourage the business of learning by rote, which brings to mind Victorian classrooms with students at rows and rows of single desks parroting lines back to the austere teacher, cane held aloft, at the head of the class. I am trying to use metaphor and imagery, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North did with the sabre-toothed tiger story, using repetition as a fine oral tradition. As a former teacher, I know that children repeating back to me memorised text tells me absolutely nothing about their ability to think critically, analyse and understand meaning. Will the Minister therefore explain how remembering quotes is the best way of ascertaining a student’s ability? To me, it is an exam technique that can be mastered, especially by those who can afford private tutors—something most pupils up and down this land cannot. It has also been disregarded by many universities. They do not examine their literature students in that way because they know that rote learning is not a sign of intelligence or original thought. What universities want to know is that their students can analyse a text, understand it and apply critical thinking. That is, rightly, what undergraduates are tested on.
The Government must stop ignoring the advice of teachers, who say that this way of examining pupils is not fit for purpose. Those teachers speak from a place of knowledge and experience on the frontline, one that aims to get the best out of our students. The Government must listen to teachers and industry experts who say that open-book exams place the emphasis on higher- level learning, whereby students can focus on analysing, evaluating and synthesising knowledge—or are the Government determined not to listen to those who are tasked with teaching the new GCSEs?
As has been pointed out, GCSE examinations are a very stressful time in a young person’s life. When students are more stressed than ever before, and teachers and school leaders are struggling to respond to years of what can only be described as chaotic chopping and changing in the curriculum and the school system, the Government should be asking serious questions about the impact of any changes to assessment. Poor mental health in teenagers is a growing issue, and child and adolescent mental health services are hugely overstretched as a result of the neglect. The Government need to be more mindful of the impact that examination changes have on students’ wellbeing and achievement.
The requirement to learn 15 poems, two plays and one novel could be a stretch for the most able students, never mind those who struggle academically. A memory test of that sort is not fair on any student, but the Government appear to have failed to acknowledge the difficulties that it could cause for those with special educational needs. We in this House know that the texts pupils are expected to read frequently contain, as one teacher put it,
“complex and often ambiguous language”.
The expectation that those with SEN will understand the texts well enough to analyse them in the first instance, and then memorise quotes, is simply unfair.
Teachers have pointed out in a letter to the former Secretary of State for Education how the reformed English literature GCSE will discriminate against pupils with dyslexia and special needs, describing the Government’s “breathtaking ignorance” of those conditions. I ask the Minister to respond to those concerns and address how they will be dealt with in exam conditions. What provisions, other than extra time, have been put in place to ensure that the exam is fair for pupils with SEN? We need a Government who understand what works and does not work for children, a Government who take advice and work with professionals to do things better when needed, not a Government who are wedded to the educational ideas of the 1950s, of divisiveness, rather than inclusivity. We need a Government who are interested in teaching children how to pass exams and in creating social mobility, so that all children can reach their full potential.
We want children who are instilled with a lifelong love of learning and who recognise the value of education, not children who are prevented by the system from succeeding. That is why I join my hon. Friends, teachers and many others today in asking the Government to reconsider their position on this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve, for what I think is the first time, under your chairmanship of one of these debates in Westminster Hall, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on arranging the debate and on opening it with such articulate and strong content.
This Government came into office determined to raise standards in our schools. That has been the driving force behind all our educational reforms. We want to close the attainment gap between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers, and our reforms are beginning to show results. More schools are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Some 1.9 million more pupils are now in those schools, benefiting form a higher quality of education than they would have done in 2010. Thanks to our phonics reforms, we are rising up the international league tables for the reading ability of nine and 10-year-olds. We have risen from joint 10th to joint eighth in the progress in international reading literacy survey. The attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers has closed by 10% in primary and secondary schools.
However, many if not most of our reforms were opposed by the Labour party, and today’s debate is just one more example of that opposition. When we came into office in 2010, we began the process of reforming the national curriculum and GCSEs and A-levels in response to concerns about grade inflation in our public exams and concerns from employers, colleges and universities about academic standards in our schools. We went through a long process. We appointed an expert panel. We worked with the exam boards in drafting subject content, and we consulted widely on that content. The exam boards went through the process of providing exam specifications. The first exams in English and maths were ready for teaching in September 2015, more than five years after the reform process began. Our determination was to ensure that our public exams were on a par with qualifications in the countries with the best performing education systems in the world. We changed the objectives of Ofqual in the Education Act 2011 to ensure that.
By ensuring that all pupils receive a rigorous core academic education up to the age of 16, we are preparing them for education and employment later in life. Whether pupils choose to take A-levels, the new T-levels when they are ready, or an apprenticeship, we know that a broad core academic education pre-16 is the best preparation. That is why we overhauled a curriculum that was denying pupils that core academic knowledge, and it is why we reformed the examination system, restoring rigour and confidence to our national qualifications. That included introducing revised subject content; replacing modules with end-of-course examinations; using non-exam assessment only where knowledge and skills cannot be tested validly in an exam, such as for art; and using tiering only when a single exam cannot assess pupils across the full ability range.
The reformed GCSEs consistently assess the knowledge and skills acquired by pupils during key stage 4. In English, that reform means a wider range of challenging texts, with no tiering or controlled assessment. It also means answering questions in the exam on some unseen texts. Many more pupils took English language and literature GCSEs in 2017. More schools entered pupils for the exam, and schools on average entered a higher number of pupils. That arose from a combination of changes to the performance measure progress 8 and the withdrawal of the combined English language and literature GCSE. Crucially, attainment in the English literature GCSE last summer was broadly stable across the grade range, and any small changes can be explained by changes to the cohort taking the qualification, which was significantly larger.
Pupils responded well to the demands of the new, more challenging qualification and scored highly in the new exams. For the largest exam board in the subject, AQA, pupils needed to score 88% for a grade 9 and 40% for a grade 4. We want all young people to develop a love of literature by reading widely for enjoyment. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend want to intervene?
I wanted to intervene simply because I did not study English literature; I studied Latin and Greek, but there are some similarities because they are textually based. We did not have texts in the exam hall. We were not encouraged to quote extensively from the texts, although the fact that I can remember so much of Catullus probably owes a lot to the erotic content, rather than anything else. Are we getting confused over the issue of having to quote large quantities of text? I do not think that is part of the exam.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to the specifics of that later. Through reading, pupils develop cultural literacy—my hon. Friend is an example of someone with great cultural literacy—and the shared knowledge that connects our society. Reading also helps to create shared bonds. From understanding references to a Catch-22 situation to sharing knowledge of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, literature contributes much to the underpinning ties that hold us together.
It is important that pupils have the opportunity to study a range of high-quality, intellectually challenging and substantial texts from our literary heritage. The new and more rigorous GCSE in English literature requires pupils to read and understand a wide range of important texts across many eras. Under the old GCSE, pupils were examined on four texts at most. Some were examined on only three: two texts and a poetry anthology or anthologies. There was no requirement for pupils to be asked questions on texts they had not previously studied —unseen texts—although exam boards could use them if they wished. The remaining texts were covered through controlled assessment, which is a form of coursework. Ofqual decided that new GCSEs in the subject would be assessed entirely by exam, as that is a more reliable and fairer method.
The new English literature GCSE requires pupils to study a range of high-quality, challenging and substantial texts, including at least one Shakespeare play; one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; and fiction or drama from the British Isles since 1914. The requirements for poetry and a novel from the 1800s are new and add more breadth and rigour to the qualification. There is also a requirement for pupils to study no fewer than 15 poems by at least five different poets with a minimum of 300 lines of poetry in total. That element is designed to ensure that pupils gain a deep understanding of literature and read widely throughout the course. As my hon. Friend said, pupils are not required to learn the poems by heart. Instead, the purpose of studying a wide range of poetry is to develop an appreciation of the form and to support pupils to understand the importance of literature across the ages.
Can the Minister explain how pupils can analyse language in the exam without remembering the language used?
Pupils may wish to cite a quote in their response to a question, but not every question in an English literature exam is about the choice of language. Other concepts and principles may be being tested. An understanding of the themes behind a piece of literature may well also be the purpose of the question. Where the question is about the use of language, students will score higher marks if they can cite the precise language or word being used. That does not mean that they are required by the syllabus to memorise vast tracts of text as part of the course and the preparation for the GCSE English literature exam.
I am torn in this debate. Is the requirement not to quote large chunks of text properly communicated to those marking the exam scripts?
Those things are made very clear by the exam boards and Ofqual. If there is an issue of communication, that is between the exam boards and the schools and the schools and the pupils, and that is something we will take up. In responding to concerns that Members from across the country have raised in correspondence about constituents, that point has been made extensively.
What the introduction of closed-book examinations means in practice is that in the examination pupils are not provided with full copies of the novels, plays or poems that they have studied during the course. The expectation is that pupils will have read and studied those books and texts at school, and that will best prepare them to answer the questions in the exam. Having read widely means they will be able to answer questions on unseen texts as well as the ones they have studied.
It is important that pupils are not misled into believing that they will get good marks simply by memorising and writing out the poems or texts that they have studied. Pupils will not be marked on their ability to learn and remember the exact words of poems or texts by heart. They may gain extra marks through the intelligent use of textual references and quotations, perhaps using approximate language on occasions. Pupils are assessed on their interpretations of the text, which they may choose to do with reference to short quotations or important passages.
Each individual exam board will have guidance for their examiners, which is a better answer for the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for each specification that covers expectations of the marking scheme, including how examiners should approach textual references and quotes.
Although having access to full texts is not permitted, Ofqual does not prohibit access to all texts during an exam. Exam boards may give pupils extracts from, for example, a novel, a scene from a play or a poem that they have studied as part of the exam materials, which pupils can use to support the argument they are making in their answer to the exam question. In order to ensure that pupils are familiar with what is expected of them and the types of additional material that the exam boards may provide, exemplar materials are provided to schools.
To earn good marks, pupils need to be able to show that they are familiar with the texts that they have studied and, in some questions, that their understanding is sufficiently developed to be able to compare them either with one another or with unseen texts that have been given to them in the exam. Pupils will need to write about a poem that they have studied which is not given to them in the exam, but that does not require them to reproduce the text in full. It requires pupils to recollect aspects of the poem, such as themes, issues or the way in which language is used to create particular effects—not necessarily using exact quotes—so as to compare it with the one provided in the exam. Thanks to a literature-rich diet throughout their schooling and a careful study of the core GCSE texts, pupils should be well prepared to write confidently about poems and other relevant material without recourse to long quotations.
In the past, pupils have been able to take either annotated or clean copies of the studied texts into the exam. However, that risks undermining the requirement for them to have studied in detail the whole text as part of their course. That requirement is important and is particularly relevant in poetry, since if pupils know they will be given access to the whole text of a poem as part of their exam, they may feel that they do not need to study the whole poem as they can just read it during the exam. That would, of course, take up valuable time during the exam and would mean that they would not necessarily have covered the whole curriculum.
Additionally, if pupils have the text available to them, it will shape the expectations of the exam. For example, if pupils could refer to the text, exam questions and their mark schemes would expect a much more detailed and extensive use of highly relevant quotes and references. Pupils could spend a large proportion of their examined time merely copying out quotations, rather than showing that they had understood the subject matter. As it is, questions and mark schemes for the new qualifications are written in the knowledge that pupils will not have access to the text, and expectations are moderated accordingly. The same position relates to questions where extracts are provided. For example, if an extract from a novel or play by Shakespeare is provided, clear and detailed references and quotes may be expected and papers are marked accordingly.
The petition notes that in addition to quotes pupils are expected to remember
“how to analyse them, plus remembering the whole plot, themes, characters and quotes from another book.”
Although that is true, it is not clear that providing a copy of the text would be of any advantage to a pupil. If the pupil is not aware of or able to recall the plot, themes and characters in the texts that they have studied, having a copy of the text with no notes or annotations will not help them.
Indeed, Ofqual has pointed out that pupils might in fact be disadvantaged if they were provided with the text. A comparatively short exam does not give time for pupils who are unfamiliar with or who have forgotten the themes or structure of the text to use the text in the exam to demonstrate the understanding expected. Additionally, even if pupils have a good understanding of the text prior to the assessment, there is a risk that they might spend significant portions of the exam searching for quotes or references in the mistaken belief that that will secure them high marks. Again, unless the text is provided, the mark schemes for the reformed qualifications do not expect extensive textual references or quotes from memory.
Finally, the practice of pupils taking copies of texts into the exam creates practical problems for exam boards and centres. The majority of text editions come with an introduction, notes and glossary. Those annotated texts are very helpful in the classroom and would be the most obvious choice when schools are deciding which books to buy. However, such texts would not be appropriate in the exam room, and schools would need to purchase an extra set of texts free of textual additions. Not only might it be difficult to source text-only editions, but it would be a major expense and would ensure that schools did not vary the choices of text that they wanted their students to study.
I hope that hon. Members are reassured that to pass the new English literature GCSE pupils are not required to memorise vast amounts of texts, and therefore pupils will not be disadvantaged by a closed-book exam. The new English literature GCSE introduces pupils to some of the key works of English literature. It is an excellent preparation for A-level and helps to introduce pupils to our society’s shared cultural literacy.
There have been interesting contributions to the debate. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) for talking about the higher-level learning that can be tested in open-book exams. That is perhaps what the Minister missed when he responded to the debate.
All of us want to see standards rise, but to equate rising standards with a particular form of examination is to confuse two different things. The question is always about what we are testing. I note that the Minister said pupils do not have to use quotes, but then he said there will be extra marks for the intelligent use of text and quotes, which is precisely why teachers need to teach their children to memorise a lot of the text—because they want them to get high marks.
We could do much better by our children. That does not mean abandoning a shared cultural heritage. At the moment, teachers are telling us that they are seeing fewer children applying to do A-level English because they have been put off by what is now expected of them in GCSE English literature.
The Minister illustrated the importance of the exact words when he referred to our understanding of things such as Catch-22. When Heller wrote the book he first called it “Catch-14”. When he was asked why he changed it, he said that 22 was funnier than 14, which illustrates exactly why the exact words are important.
If we are to test students at a higher level to enable our best students to show what they can do, we should move away from making our exams so much a test of memory and move towards encouraging our children to do more analysis and evaluation of the text and to develop the skills that they will need in their future lives.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 200299 relating to GCSE English literature exams.