Some points for parents and pupils
In September 2015 the programme of study for GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature changed; there was a new specification (or 'syllabus') for each of these awards and a scale of 0 - 9 replaced the old U (ungraded) - A* system.
The changes were partly to do with the development of the curriculum taught to pupils and partly in response to calls for the need to raise standards, from some decision-makers. Some viewed this as yet another overhaul, with yet more change which would require yet more planning at the 'chalk face', which would also cost schools dearly in terms of time for staff training, and money for new texts and learning resources to support delivery in the classroom. Others might feel that the qualifications pre-2015 were insufficiently demanding for more skilled pupils, who, in particular, needed more rigorous testing of understanding and accuracy. A further concern was the proportion of pupils achieving A*.
Whatever you think about the reasons, the effects or the politics involved, our youngsters must be thoroughly prepared for the requirements of the current tests, and both parents/carers and pupils must be absolutely clear about the 'ground work' necessary to gain the best grades and to meet or, ideally, exceed a child's potential.
I feel well qualified to advise you, based on 30+ years of classroom teaching, 10+ years of tutoring individuals towards the terminal papers for both GCSE Language and Literature and 6+ years of being an Examiner, actually marking thousands of GCSE papers.
It is my belief that English Language, in particular, is getting more difficult. Whilst statistical information may give the impression that no cohort will be disadvantaged vis-à-vis any previous cohort, I was particularly surprised by the Summer 2019 results (i.e. the third cohort taking these 'new' papers – the first exams were sat in 2017). Granted: the number that I taught was much smaller than any school group: I had 6 pupils sitting the exams, all from different schools. However, where in previous years my forecasts turned into real grades at the end of August when results were published, this year every pupil gained one grade lower than I had predicted; so my belief that someone should gain a '5' (upper C) actually translated into a final grade of '4', and so on. Interestingly, as in previous years, pupils' Literature grade was one above their Language score (e.g. '4' for Language and '5' for Literature).
If my 'hunch' that 'the powers that be' are actually playing an advanced game of 'smoke and mirrors' by changing the grading structure from letters to numbers to disguise this greater difficulty, I, as an independent tutor, have to respond in the way I prepare pupils. 'There's no point in crying over spilt milk' as the saying goes; we all have to get on with it, for our youngsters' sakes.
So, in the absence of more joining up between the primary and secondary phases of education, I'd offer the following suggestions:
- More input and checking of 'SPG' (spelling, punctuation and grammar) as early on as is desirable for your child. As much of their writing as possible should be thoroughly checked – word by word, literally; writing skills now account for 50% of Language GCSE, with accuracy accounting for about a third of that portion.
- Year 6 SATs are very time consuming and cause enormous anxiety for all involved; the content bears little relation to GCSE requirements. These results are barely mentioned at high school and are only used for 'benchmarking' pupils' abilities at the beginning of Year 7. Homework time would be better spent learning high frequency spellings, basic punctuation (capital letters, full-stops, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, speech marks) and 'critical' reading, where pupils' understanding is checked and there is discussion about character creation, plot and style.
- It is another 'quirk' of the system that, more often than not, the testing of spelling does not carry on past the end of primary; a rather worrying over-sight which disadvantages pupils. Parents/carers can respond to this by asking pupils to record spelling corrections from school work and ensuring that they are learnt; thus, youngsters are able to spell the words that they wish to use in their writing. (It has been my experience for many years that workload and curriculum issues result in some aspects of English being neglected in schools – a fact that has to be remedied in home support).
- A varied reading 'diet'; reading every day – an enjoyable activity between children and their parents/carers. There are numerous lists available to widen reading 'horizons' – on the web, from both school and local libraries. Be adventurous and inquisitive!
- Vitally for GCSE, get into the habit of questioning: what does the author suggest about this/that character, this/that setting, how is the text organised, in what ways is the author trying to 'hook' the reader, are there any words/ideas/phrases that aren't understood? GCSE texts for both Language and Literature expect depth of understanding and an ability to explain reactions.
- Of particular concern is my perception about how youngsters' vocabulary has contracted; often I am confronted with ignorance about words beyond very basic, 'functional' English. Reading, curiosity and the desire to broaden a child's 'working' vocabulary are ways of improving exam chances – have the discipline to do something to help yourself.
- The primary curriculum is so over-loaded that handwriting skills can also be over-looked. Although much of society now types into phones, tablets and computers, exams are still handwritten. Quick, legible handwriting is a 'must' as part of 'future-proofing' for good exam technique. It is also a good life-skill in the 'arsenal' of accomplishments that should, ideally, have been gained during the educational process.
- Once upon a time, the development of a child's 'general knowledge' was encouraged; knowledge about the world we live in – the major cities in Great Britain, the location of different countries and their flags, who's who in government, native British trees and wild-life, and so on. Paradoxically, it seems to me, despite the infinite knowledge offered by the internet, pupils' knowledge is actually contracting. Parents/carers can reverse this (and probably increase their own knowledge and act as role models for children) by encouraging children to question: one of my pupils recently asked me, 'Where's Rome?' and another, 'What's Manhattan?' – as a result of their reading. It's so quick and easy to follow up on questions by a Google search.
- As, arguably, English is THE most important subject in the school curriculum, all of these points are transferable into other subjects, so have added 'learning value'.
- Especially in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, GCSE grades may affect a person's eligibility for a future course or job promotion, even if they don't have direct relevance. It is absolutely vital to be aware of this particular little nugget of knowledge!
- Good communication between parents/carers and their child can 'flag up' points requiring attention, and, as someone who, as a youngster, kept a lot to herself, I would urge children to discuss their learning, so that any issues can be attended to, sooner rather than later.
- Finally, don't leave getting 'GCSE ready' until Year 11! The terminal papers require pupils to be perceptive about what a writer may be suggesting, beyond the surface meaning and to be able to express their ideas in legible, developed sentences, using interesting, accurately spelt vocabulary, employing varied sentences and a range of punctuation.