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GCSE English Literature Exams

Volume 624: debated on Monday 24 April 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 172405 relating to GCSE English Literature exams.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the last Petitions Committee debate of this Parliament. I must confess that when I saw the petition, I had mixed feelings. English is my subject: it was what I was most interested in at school, I read English at university and my first job was teaching English. Being of my generation, my head is stuffed full of quotations from Shakespeare to Keats to D. H. Lawrence. My colleagues know that my party piece around this time of year is reciting the opening of the general prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” in middle English, but I will not inflict that on people here.

That knowledge of literature has hugely enriched my life, and I hope that it has enriched my students’ lives too; when they get back in touch with me after I have been in the papers, they say so. But—this is a big “but”— as the great cultural commentator Raymond Williams said, we are all prone to value the kind of education that we received over and above any other kind, but what we choose to teach, and how we choose to teach it, is a selection from what is available. He talked about

“what is thought of as an education being in fact a particular selection, a set of emphases and omissions”.

When we consider examinations, the question is what children should learn and how they should learn in order to be fitted for the world in which they will grow up, which will be very different from the one in which we grew up. In my experience, that question is seldom asked by Governments. We are normally subject to the whims of various Secretaries of State; some, perhaps, have had more than others. For instance, we heard about the need to teach “our island story”; then an English baccalaureate certificate was proposed and later abandoned. It is no wonder that teachers often find themselves in a whirlwind. No sooner have they got used to one set of instructions than they must get used to another. In all this, the fundamental questions about what we need to teach our children for the future are not dealt with.

Before I go on, I must say clearly that I think that the study of literature is enormously important for an understanding of oneself and society. Think of Chaucer’s pilgrims, chattering away down the centuries. Their jobs might not exist anymore, but the people can still be met, with all their strengths and weaknesses, in any street in any town. Nor do I believe that much literature is intrinsically too difficult for our children. I have taught Shakespeare to 11-year-olds. I got teenage boys to read Jane Austen by pointing out that her brothers read the books aloud to the officers of Nelson’s Navy, not notable for being a set of wimps. If Shakespeare’s groundlings could follow his plays, I see no reason why our children cannot—provided, of course, that it is a good juicy murder; there is nothing more boring than having to explain 500-year-old jokes to a class.

Although the choice of text is always one for teachers, it makes my blood boil when I hear people say that some things are too difficult for working-class children, because I was one myself. I say that because when people criticise the exam system, they are often accused of wanting to dumb things down. Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. It is true that the Government have changed the GCSE English literature syllabus so that it is now a linear subject with exams at the end of the course. A new grading system will be introduced this year, and coursework has been abandoned. That is consistent with this Government’s approach to examinations in most subjects.

I grew up with that system, and I was fortunate enough to be good at it, because I was blessed with a good memory, but I am not sure that I agree entirely with Ofqual when it says:

“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.”

I might agree that the skills in the syllabus can be tested by an examination at the end, but whether those are the right skills is a different question. There is a place for a more extended and in-depth response to texts, especially those dealing with complex subjects and emotions.

That is where open-book exams can be important. The Government have abandoned the idea of coursework, although it might have been better to change the guidance and the time limits, but I believe that open-book exams can ask far more stretching and difficult questions of our children. The Government rightly 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.”

That has always been the case, as any teacher knows, but the Government also said:

“Students will not need to learn and remember the exact words of poems or texts by heart.”

Moreover, the former chief regulator said in a blog post:

“Assessment is about learning and understanding, not memory.”

I would be convinced by that if not for one thing: in literature, the exact words are important. A great writer chooses words with precision. An approximation of what they said might not have the same force or convey the same sentiments.

The Minister might, like me, be old enough to remember the Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Shakespeare is writing rubbish and the milkman keeps coming in and helping him. Shakespeare writes, “It’s very cold, I said to Yorkie,” and the milkman suggests, “How about, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’?” [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell- Buck) is laughing because she is definitely not old enough to remember it.

The Minister will also remember George Orwell’s strictures on people who use “petite” when they mean “little” and then say that it means “dainty”, or his way of curing people of using the construction “not un-”:

“A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”

Words matter. Words, like facts, are stubborn things. One must remember a great deal to be able to answer some of the questions in our GCSE exams properly.

The Government, and certainly Ofqual, might argue that extended and more difficult questions can be asked about the unseen texts in the exam. However, strangely, Ofqual prohibits people from having a whole text in front of them, saying:

“We do not expect an awarding organisation to provide a whole text as Stimulus Materials for an assessment for a GCSE Qualification in English Literature.”

I might believe that Ofqual understood what it was talking about if it did not switch from singular to plural in the same sentence and put totally unnecessary capital letters on “stimulus materials”.

I must admit that I am a bit of a sceptic about unseen texts in exams. I used to tell my students, “This is a completely useless exercise, but we will now learn to outwit the examiners,” and they did. We do not actually read literature like that. We do not read extracts; we read plays, novels or poems. It is Leavisite literary critical theory taken to its ultimate. It is a prime example of doing things because we have always done them like that.

The answer to the central question of whether open-book exams are better than exams without the text is that, as always, it depends what we want to test. Whatever Ofqual says, an exam that students take without the text in front of them depends to a large extent on memory. It is impossible to comment properly on a text, for instance to show how an author deals with characterisation, without being able to remember large parts of it. It is impossible to compare two poems without being able to remember large parts of them. Remembering, in itself, does not get a student good marks, but it is an essential prerequisite to answering many of the questions, as a number of the teachers who responded to our consultation pointed out. One said:

“Students must remember lines off by heart, as they are required to analyse them… It is a minimum requirement for the modern text question, as there is no extract.”

As a test of memory, that is not bad, but is that all we want to test? Many people would argue that open-book exams, on the other hand, allow more searching questions to be asked of students. They allow students to do more analysis and evaluation and to synthesise knowledge rather than repeat it. In other words, open-book exams are higher up Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, which teachers know about because they learn about it in training. It is also true that the skills required in an open-book exam are more like those that we use in real life—it is very seldom that we have to produce a piece of work in a rigid time limit, without recourse to any resources. It all depends on the examination being designed properly.

Open-book examinations have disadvantages, too. For instance, it is much more difficult to ensure that students have a clean text in front of them, without notes. There is also an argument that they may deter students from getting fully involved in the literature that they have to study, because they rely on having the book in front of them. It is often said that having the book makes the exams easier, although I am afraid that I disagree. I did open-book exams at university for some of my subjects—the Chaucer and Shakespeare unseen papers, which in those days were six hours long—and we had to know the texts very well to know where to look for quotations in the first place. I confess that I have not found a lot of evidence—it may exist, but other pressures have arisen—but the research that I have been able to find, from Washington University in St Louis, found that both sorts of tests enhanced retention of information.

The other issue that we ought to think about carefully is that our children are growing up in an age of information overload. They probably need to learn much more than we did about how to access information, assess its value, organise it and apply it. That may be done in other examinations, but it could also be part of our English literature examination. As I said at the beginning, my head is stuffed full of quotations, and I believe that to really engage with a piece of literature, a reader has to memorise some of it and make sure that they have internalised it. However, I also think that open-book exams can ask more testing questions. They can achieve what the Government say they want, which is to ensure that the brightest pupils can show what they are capable of.

There is a case for both kinds of examination, and the Government should think seriously about making at least some English literature exams open-book in future, but the real issue is that for a long time we have not thought seriously about what our children should learn and how they should learn it. I know that the Minister has a genuine interest in providing the best possible education for young people in this country; he and I may sometimes disagree about methods, but I do not doubt his commitment. Since this Parliament is coming to its end, little can be done at the moment, but I hope that in future he will apply his mind to what exactly we want to test through different types of examination. There is no getting away from the fact that being good at English literature requires some feats of memory, but that is not all we should try to test. I hope that we will think about that, and about what the petition asks for, in future.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), the Chair of the Petitions Committee, who was on top form this afternoon, as always, for introducing this debate. I also thank all those, including my own constituents, who signed the petition.

Although sadly it is too late to change things for this year’s entrants, it is not too late for the next Government—whoever they may be—to change their mind for future pupils. The new structure of the GCSE English literature closed-book exams poses numerous serious 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 our schools teach English literature in the first place.

English literature enlightens us. A popular quote says:

“Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living”.

English literature is not an exact science. It makes no sense to test it in a way that basically amounts to a glorified memory test. Studying literature is a way of understanding our world and learning skills to engage in it by learning to express ourselves and by learning critical thinking, research and writing skills and independent thought. It teaches us to build arguments, analyse, probe and read between the lines. It also teaches us eloquence, which my hon. Friend displayed finely this afternoon, as I hope the Minister noticed.

I have noticed that many of us in this place often do not memorise our speeches. We carefully craft our arguments in prose, and if we need to check the validity of a piece of information, we have a whole host of organisations on hand, inside and outside Parliament, to equip us with briefings and facts. We are not expected to memorise every word we say in here. If it is not expected of MPs, why are we placing that burden of expectation on pupils in our schools? Why do we want students to remember up to 250 quotes? What purpose does that serve, other than displaying a student’s ability to learn parrot-fashion?

Closed-book examinations for GCSE English literature encourage the business of learning by rote, not meaningful learning. That is not the best way of assessing learning outcomes or the acquisition of skills for any child. Can the Minister explain how remembering quotes is the best way of showcasing a student’s true ability in a small window of time? It is simply not. It is a test not of content but of exam technique, which of course privileges those who can afford private tutors and the like. It is also worth saying that many universities do not examine their literature students in that way, because they know that rote learning is not a sign of intelligence or original thought. It is robust analysis and understanding that count and that undergraduates are rightly tested on, so why on earth do we expect our children to learn lines?

Just as we have seen the Government take our education policy back to the 1950s with the forced reintroduction of grammar schools, so we see them applying a very old-fashioned and traditionalist mentality to GCSE literature examinations. Such a mentality distorts the emphasis of teaching towards drumming quotes into students, rather than analysis and context—what a quote means and why it may be significant. Additionally, under exam pressure even the most capable students may not be able to recall the details of a critical quote. It is absurd that that may prevent them from achieving top marks, or that they may devote all their revision time to learning quotes rather than practising arguments, essay technique and narrative. In this age of technology, we need to be purposefully teaching students and pupils how to access, organise and apply information, and not simply to memorise it.

There is an abundance of thought out there, and thousands of teachers are saying, that this way of testing does not achieve anything positive. One teacher has said:

“I teach students who are capable, intelligent, articulate people with excellent appreciation and critical faculties—in short, brilliant literature students—but who don’t have great memories. I myself can’t quote from films or songs that I’ve heard 100 times. These students will gain average-poor grades despite their deep knowledge of, appreciation of and critical analysis of these texts, simply because they cannot remember the precise wording from the text. Either we’re testing memory or skill and in a literature exam, I believe that a critical appreciation is more important than an ability to memorise quotations.”

Surely the Minister cannot go on ignoring teachers when they tell him that this way of examining pupils is not fit for purpose. Why will he not listen to teachers or industry experts who say that closed-book exams place a premium on accurate and extensive recall, with students’ knowledge dominated by that ability, whereas open-book exams place the emphasis on higher-level learning, whereby students can focus on analysing, evaluating and synthesising knowledge? If the Government are determined not to listen to those who are tasked with teaching the new GCSEs, in the same way that they will not listen to other experts on divisive policies such as grammar schools, who will they listen to?

GCSE examinations are a very stressful time in any young person’s life. At a time when students are more stressed than ever before, and when teachers and school leaders are struggling to respond to years of chaotic chopping and changing in the curriculum, 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 this Government’s neglect. Has the Minister assessed the likely impact of the changes on the wellbeing and achievement of students? The requirement to learn 15 poems, two plays and one novel could be a stretch for even the most able students, never mind those who already struggle academically. A memory test of this sort is not fair for any student, but it appears that the Government have failed to acknowledge the difficulties it could cause for those pupils with special educational needs. We in this House know that frequently the texts pupils are expected to read contain, as one teacher put it,

“complex and often ambiguous language”.

The expectation that those with SEN will understand these texts well enough to analyse them in the first instance, and then to memorise quotes, is simply unfair.

In an open letter to the then Education Secretary, one teacher said that the reformed English literature GCSE will discriminate against pupils with dyslexia and special needs, because of the Government’s “breathtaking ignorance” of these conditions. Even if rest breaks and access arrangements such as extra time can be put in place to level the playing field, I hope—as that teacher hoped—that the Minister can see that no amount of extra time will correct a memory deficit. I would like him to tell us in his response to this debate what provisions, other than extra time, his Government have put in place to ensure that the exam is fair for pupils with SEN.

Once again, this move shows a Government who have no progressive ideas for education or any understanding of the curriculum, regarding what works and what does not work for children; a Government wedded to the educational ideas of the 1950s of segregation and divisiveness, rather than inclusivity; and a Government interested in teaching children how to pass exams and grammar school entry tests, rather than in creating a level playing field, so that all children, regardless of background or disability, can reach their full potential. We should instil in our children a lifelong love of learning and not reduce a magnificent subject such as English literature to forcing kids to learn quotes by rote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, teachers, students and many others are urging the Government to look at this issue again and to realise the problems they are creating for huge numbers of our children and their English literature education. I will leave the Minister with one final question: closed-book exams—“To be, or not to be, that is the question”.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I think it is the first time I have done so, but I hope that it will not be the last such occasion for either of us.

I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)—I assume she learned by heart the quote she just gave. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who is the Chair of the Petitions Committee, on opening this debate and on doing so articulately, with fluency and a strong use of language. Perhaps that is the consequence of her immersion in the great canon of English literature. I share her ire about some people saying that some literature is too difficult for children from poorer backgrounds.

The hon. Lady cited Morecambe and Wise, and their wonderful and hilarious use of language. Who can forget Ernie Wise’s catchphrase about

“The plays what I wrote”?

We remember them fondly.

I am aware of the comments that have been made and the concerns that have been raised about the new English literature GCSE, notably the claim that exam boards will not provide pupils with any extracts from the novels, poems and plays that they have studied, as well as the expectation that pupils will have to memorise large amounts of text. I reassure the hon. Lady and all hon. Members that that is not the case. Pupils do not have to reproduce word for word what they have read to pass the GCSE. The examination is not about testing a pupil’s ability to recall specific portions of the texts they have read; it is a test of how they understand and can interpret the literature they have studied.

It is also not the case that pupils have to memorise “250+ quotes”, as reported in the petition. I am not clear where that figure has come from, but neither the Department for Education’s GCSE subject content nor Ofqual’s regulations contain any requirement that suggest it will be necessary to learn such a high number of quotes, or indeed any specific number. Ofqual does not prohibit access to texts during an exam and exam boards may give pupils extracts from works, such as an extract from a novel, a scene from a play or a poem. Such extracts form part of the exam materials. What is not allowed is for pupils to have copies of the full play, novel or set of poems to take into the exam with them.

Before I go on to explain the assessment approaches of the new English literature GCSE, I will say why English literature is so important, although the hon. Lady has already said it. We want all pupils to develop a love of literature by reading widely for enjoyment. Reading is the cornerstone of education. Ensuring that all pupils, whatever their background, are taught to read correctly, and that they develop a love of literature, is key to social mobility.

It is important that pupils have access to qualifications that establish expectations matching those in the highest-performing countries in the world. The reforms to the English literature GCSE are part of a wider drive to restore rigour and confidence in our public exam system. International tests indicated that the increase in the proportion of pupils achieving top GCSE grades had overstated actual performance. That is why we overhauled a curriculum that was denying pupils the core academic knowledge, and why we reformed the examination system, breathing confidence back into our national qualifications.

Previously, English literature GCSE pupils were examined on four texts at most, and some on only three texts—two texts and poetry anthologies. There was no requirement for pupils to be asked questions on texts that they had not previously studied—what are called “unseen texts”. The remaining texts were covered through controlled assessment, which is a form of coursework. Ofqual decided that new English literature GCSEs would be assessed entirely by exam because that is a fairer and more reliable method.

The subject content for the new English literature GCSE was published in 2013, and the rules about open texts were announced by Ofqual in 2014. Teaching of the new GCSE began in September 2015, which is why we will see the first exams in the new subject this summer. 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 specification for poetry and a novel from the 1800s is new, and we believe that it adds more depth and rigour to the qualification.

There is also a requirement for pupils to study no fewer than 15 poems by at least five poets, and a minimum of 300 lines of poetry. That element is designed to reward pupils who have gained a deep understanding of literature and have read widely enough throughout the course—it is not about memorising poems word for word. It is interesting to note that the views of the English subject community are mixed, with many not agreeing with the views expressed in the petition. For example, a 2015 blog by the English and Media Centre’s co-director, Barbara Bleiman, put memorisation and learning by heart into context. Focusing on poetry, she wrote:

“It doesn’t seem to us to be unreasonable, in a Literature exam, to ask pupils to choose one poem to talk about that isn’t there in front of them, nor does it necessitate rote learning or wholesale memorisation. Being able to recollect some details from their chosen poem...and give a few examples, using quotation or not, doesn’t require learning by heart or massive taxing of the memory.”

The introduction of closed-book examinations triggered the debate. What that means in practice is that pupils are not provided with copies of the novels, plays or poems they have studied during the course. The expectation is that pupils read widely and deeply during their studies to prepare them to answer questions in the exam about the books and poems they have studied. That means that they will be able critically to compare and contrast a range of literature using relevant quotes and text references to demonstrate the depth of their understanding. Additionally, pupils need to answer questions about unseen texts—texts they have not studied and are unlikely to have read before. These unseen texts might, but do not have to be, by authors whose works pupils have studied as set books. Pupils may have to compare an unseen text with one of the texts they have studied.

We do not expect exam boards to give pupils, or allow them access to, copies of the whole texts they have studied during their exams. Boards can, however, provide relevant extracts, and they are already including examples of such extracts in their sample assessment materials. Pupils will therefore be familiar with the types of extract they will be given. 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 they have studied. They 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 quotations, but the requirement is about illustrating pupils’ interpretation and understanding of the text, and hence demonstrating their understanding of the question. Quotations can be part of that. Each exam board will have guidance for its examiners for each specification that covers expectations of the mark scheme, the aim of which is to ensure standardisation when examiners are marking. It may include guidance on how examiners should approach textual references and quotes.

To gain good marks, pupils will need to show that they are familiar with the texts they have studied and, in some questions, that their understanding is sufficiently developed to compare them either with each other or with unseen texts that have been given to them in the exam. Pupils will need to write about a poem they have studied that is not given to them in the exam, but that will not require them to reproduce the text in full. Rather, it will require pupils to recollect aspects about the poem, such as themes, issues and the way in which language is used to create particular effects, so as to compare it with one provided in the exam.

In the past, pupils have been able to take either annotated or clean copies of the studied texts into the exam, but 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 it is particularly relevant in poetry. If pupils know they will be given access to the whole text of a poem as part of their exam, they may feel they do not need to study the whole poem, or the whole array or anthology of poems, as they can do the reading during the exam. In addition, if pupils had the text available to them, it would shape the expectations of the exam. For example, if they can refer to the text, exam questions and their mark schemes would expect a much more detailed and extensive use of quotes and references. 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 the expectations are moderated accordingly. The same relates to questions in which extracts are provided. For example, if an extract from a novel or a Shakespeare play is provided, clear and detailed references and quotes may be expected, and papers marked accordingly.

The e-petition notes that pupils

“are expected to remember…themes and context that are incorporated within these texts”.

That is true, but it is not clear that providing a copy of the text would represent an advantage to a pupil. If a pupil is not already aware of, or able to recall, broad issues such as the themes and context of the texts 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 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 a glossary. These annotated texts are immensely helpful in the classroom and would be the most obvious choice for an English department budget. However, such texts would not be appropriate in the exam room, and centres would need to purchase an extra set of texts free of textual additions. Not only is it difficult and, in some cases, impossible to source text-only editions, it would also be a major expense.

The hon. Member for South Shields raised the important issue of children with special educational needs. Students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable adjustments and schools will be in touch with the exam boards to request them. She asked for examples. Typical adjustments are the use of extra time, scribes and readers and, depending on the disability, different fonts, coloured paper, enlarged papers and so on can also be made available. We consulted specifically on access to texts last year as part of a wider consultation on the specifications on the use of reasonable adjustments.

This summer, pupils will not only take the new English and maths GCSEs but will also receive a new grade. The new qualifications will be graded from 9 to 1, instead of from A* to G, with 9 being the highest. The new scale is intended to recognise better the achievements of high-attaining pupils and ensure that parents have greater clarity about how well their child performs in the exams. It will also clearly distinguish the new, more challenging GCSEs from their predecessor qualifications.

I hope hon. Members are reassured that passing the new English Literature GCSE does not require pupils to memorise vast amounts of texts and that our reformed GCSEs will provide all pupils with the qualifications they need to progress to further education and employment.

There is very little for me to say, except to thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for her contribution. I listened carefully to the Minister’s detailed response, and thank him for it. No doubt we will discuss the matter at length on other occasions. In the meantime, may I say what a pleasure it has been to chair the Petitions Committee and that I wish colleagues if not the best of luck, at least a sunny election campaign, with little rain?

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 172405 relating to GCSE English Literature exams.

Sitting adjourned.