When the NATE Secondary Committee met having scrutinised the new GCSE Specifications, it was not what you would call an upbeat affair. Many of the concerns we had on reading the original GCSE criteria published by QCA seemed to come into even sharper focus on reading the offerings from the examination boards. The examination boards themselves are not, in reality, to be blamed for this. Despite some concessions made following the consultation period (and hearty sympathy to all of you who completed the seemingly interminable online questionnaires) the constraints of the criteria have severely limited the boards' respective freedoms when designing specifications. The restrictions on choice (students must do either English alone, or English Language and English Literature; no other combination is permitted) and the rules governing the setting, teaching and assessing of controlled conditions units have all but dictated the content. The results present English teachers with a whole host of challenges and the implications for students and teachers of English of the new specifications are potentially far reaching.
Although the specifications are still currently in draft form, it is worth asking questions in key areas now, since preparation time prior to September 2010 will be at a premium. Our grid (see next page) offers an overview of the units on offer from each board; whilst none would be the GCSE we would design for ourselves, a choice inevitably must be made. This article highlights what we feel to be some of critical points to consider in making that decision.
Common Ground and Continuity
The constraints of the criteria mean that to a large extent the differences between the specifications often revolve around which core elements are assessed either externally or internally. There is certainly a fair amount of common ground, and experienced teachers of GCSE will be familiar with large elements of the new offerings.
The speaking and listening component closely resembles that currently in existence, and mercifully here there remains scope for a fair amount of teacher and student autonomy in the designing of tasks and activities. The set texts across the boards (albeit with some new additions within, for example, literary non-fiction) are in the main the tried and trusted favourites. Similarly, an anthology, in one form or another is a shared feature. The non-fiction reading and writing elements, where they appear within external examination, resemble current arrangements, though perhaps are beginning to look more like SATs papers in their form.
It's clear that, in general, the boards have, to a greater of lesser extent, attempted to 'soften the blow' of the new specifications with these aspects of continuity. For many this will offer some degree of reassurance, though colleagues wishing for the specifications to embody some kind of 'visionary' approach to a new English for the 21st century will perhaps be disappointed.
Course Planning and Flexibility
An early concern--shared by other organisations along with NATE--was that the constraints and demands of the new criteria might potentially return English Literature to an option subject for the elite. Our view is that this would be to the detriment of students, and that all should have an entitlement to at least the breadth of reading offered on current English/Literature courses. To their credit, the exam boards, too, seem ostensibly to suggest that a course leading to examination in both English Language and English Literature would be 'the norm' for most students.
In order to facilitate this, each specification claims to offer flexibility, so that students can follow a core course and late decisions can be made over which qualifications students will be entered for. This is planned for in a variety of ways, but most notably in the large cross-over in content and assessment between the English and English Language qualifications, where most boards have at least one common unit (in addition to the common speaking and listening requirements for each specification), and some more than this. …