Working Group on GCSE English Reform – Written evidence (EDU0059)
- This submission concerns the subject of English, divided at KS4 into GCSE English Literature and GCSE English Language.
- Following the remit of the inquiry, we focus on how GCSE English Literature and GCSE English Language prepare young people for the job opportunities they will encounter in a future digital and green economy.
- We argue that the subject of English is vital in preparing students for the future economy. However, we believe that the current curriculum and assessment model for both English GCSEs are not fit for this purpose.
- We are the Working Group on GCSE English Reform set up by University English, an organisation of Departments of English in Higher Education, and the English Association, in response to very widespread disquiet in the discipline about the current GCSE provision. We are made up of secondary school teachers, academics from university Departments of English, university Departments of Education and educational consultants.
- The Working Group’s full report is due later in 2023, and this submission to your inquiry is made up of our interim recommendations, undertaken because of the importance and relevance of your inquiry to our work.
Why is English important for the future economy?
- The study of English Literature and Language teaches core skills and dispositions for the world of work: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity, independence and adaptability.
- The study of language both spoken and written, of literary and non-literary works, and of texts of many different kinds enhances students’ ability to understand themselves, other people and our shared world
- A recent HEPI report notes the “strong correlation between the skills of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences graduates and key skills valued by employers”. A British Academy Report notes that of “the ten fastest growing sectors, eight employ more graduates from AHSS [Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences] than other disciplines, with six having over two-thirds of their graduate workforce from AHSS”.
- One clear example of this is Google’s Project Oxygen. Google launched Project Oxygen in 2013, “the most thorough, data-intensive study that any company has undertaken to understand the qualities that lead to promotion and a successful career”. Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, expected that technological skills would lead to career success: Project Oxygen discovered something very different. The top seven skills for success turned out to be “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including other’s different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas”. As Cathy Davidson, in her book, The New Education: how to revolutionise the university to prepare students for a world in flux, explains, studying literature is one of the most effective methods of teaching these traits. Research shows unambiguously that companies big and small value and are looking for skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, independence and adaptability.
- Of special importance for English, a subject to which creativity is central, Nesta argues that “creative industries are driving economic growth across the UK” growing twice as fast as other industry sectors: these industries will create 900,000 new jobs in the next 10 years, located right across the UK. 25% of arts and humanities graduates find work in the creative sector and are three times more likely to be in a creative job than other graduates.
- We note, as Lord Jo Johnson remarked on 26th April this year, at the launch of The Humanities in the UK Today: What’s Going On?, that training in the humanities offers resilience and longevity for employees in the changing future work place, while more narrow and professional training may date.
- In addition, as the National Curriculum for English at KS4 makes clear, “English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society” because it teaches to “communicate their ideas and emotions to others”, to “develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually” and to play a full role in the social and political life of the nation.
CGSE English Literature and GCSE English Language not fit for purpose
- However, we argue that the GCSE English Literature and GCSE English Language are currently not fit for purpose and do not effectively prepare students for future job opportunities.
- We note, for example, the 2019 ‘The State of English and the Teaching of English’ survey, undertaken by the National Association for the Teaching of English, which revealed “growing student dissatisfaction and disengagement with English studies at earlier stages of education, especially in GCSE English, the course officially prescribed for students at KS4”. A 2017 Survey from the English and Media Centre, an educational charity, found that teachers “commented that the new GCSEs were ‘narrow and dull’, that ‘students really dislike them’… and that they fail to engage students because ‘everything is performance-focused’. Others made the point that ‘too much emphasis on testing has destroyed any creativity in this subject’ and that ‘we have killed this subject with the new, terribly boring GCSE’”.
- We note three core ways in which the current GCSE English Literature and English Language provision does not prepare students for the contemporary or future world of work.
- The increasingly narrow curriculum, especially since 2015, has dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the subject in preparing students for the workplace. We agree with the teacher from the NATE 2019 survey, who wrote that the curriculum “misses the opportunity to engage students in the issues that are shaping their lives today”. As the curriculum narrows, students feel a lack of ownership, connection and purpose. We note four areas of impact especially.
- Understanding of media, digital and other non-literary, non-fiction and ‘multi-modal’ texts are vital for the world of work today: study of these texts in GCSE English Language have been reduced, making the current assessment less useful for future employability.
- Varied language study, and the development of associated skills, has been reduced, most significantly with the removal of Spoken Language Study in 2015. Language study is an important element in making students aware of how language works in the world and workplace.
- The opportunities for reading contemporary and socially diverse texts have shrunk significantly, meaning that both GCSE English Literature and GCSE English Language do not adequately engage with the students’ identities or our increasingly diverse global world.
- English has traditionally been a ‘big picture’ subject allowing students to develop and make connections, and teaching students how to ‘make meaning’ for themselves: vital skills for the world of work and for becoming socially responsible, culturally aware global citizens. However, as NATE argues, the recent student “experience of English… tends to be a microcosmic analysis of textual features and their alleged ‘effects’ rather than on reading for meaning”. This reduces the experience and ability to make these connections, and again reduces the effectiveness of the subject in preparing the student for the workplace and world.
- Current forms of teaching, which rely on Direct Instruction and ‘scripted lessons’ and which may potentially be well-suited to other disciplines, are inappropriate ways of delivering the skills and knowledge that English teaches. These forms of teaching impede the development of student independence and personal response to texts, reduce teacher autonomy and judgment, and decrease teacher confidence. As a Head of English wrote, again in the NATE survey, “I want to enable and empower my team to teach as themselves, excellently, using their own professional judgement, and working as a team. But there is pressure to ‘be more like science’ even though I don’t think that will work for outcomes or engagement or motivation or keeping my staff on side”. The distinctive nature of English Literature and Language, and the ways in which collaboration, communication and creativity are central to its purposes, requires a variety of pedagogic approaches.
- Assessment only by terminal examination excludes the possibility for an element of reflective coursework, and is a poor preparation for the workplace, in which a range of resources are consulted, and work drafted and redrafted for a particular audience and purpose. Generally, assessment in schools shows little recognition of the complex nature of learning in English, which involves non-linear progress and a wide range of skills. More, students’ own responses and voice are limited, reducing their ability to become independent learners, and work critically and collaboratively with others and so to develop as commercial or social entrepreneurs.
- We agree with the teacher who commented in the NATE survey that the GCSE is “not preparing pupils for ‘real life’, not encouraging cultural experiences and ‘soft skills’”.
- More, we note that these issues at KS4 impact directly on KS3, often making it ‘GCSE-lite’. The high-pressure accountability culture in schools has led to KS3 often being viewed only through a GCSE lens, as preparation for the very specific demands of flawed GCSE exams, rather than as a broader and more expansive education in the subject.
- To support students in developing the vital skills and knowledge taught by English for the world of work, we would make recommendations under several headings.
- Reforming the content of both GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature:
- Offer a clearer idea of the nature and purpose of the subject, and what it equips students to do in the world of work and in broader life as engaged citizens.
- Define more clearly the relationship between the two GCSEs, with due regard to the importance of language as its own field of knowledge.
- Develop knowledge about language, including assessing speaking and listening, making the path from GCSE to A level English Language more coherent, and the path from there to employment skills clearer.
- Include more media, non-fiction and multi-modal texts, including print journalism, Film, TV, drama and digital texts
- Consider more appropriate ways of including and assessing creative and professional writing, to reflect the ways in which fiction and non-fiction texts are planned, drafted and written in the wider world
- Diversify the literary and language curriculum, including global English texts and texts in translation
- Introduce students to different ways of thinking, talking, and writing about their engagement with the subject and the variety of the ways in which texts can be interpreted
- Reframe the ways literature is taught, to put back into balance different elements. Currently, for instance, historical context and de-contextualised analysis of small detail have had an exaggerated importance for assessment, and this has a negative impact on students’ abilities to develop their own informed interpretations of texts
- Reform the strategies for writing at GSCE
- Allow more forms of writing, including creative writing and building in talking and dialogue about texts
- Build in scope for the development of writing, including rewriting, editing, redrafting
- Reform the forms of assessment
- Consider options for different forms of examining that offer more scope for varied assessment that reflects real world requirements for using language e.g. pre-release material, desk studies and meaningful coursework.
- Build in enrichment activities that go beyond examination requirements
- Focus more on developing teacher expertise and confidence, with a special focus on the use of time, tasks in the classroom and subject knowledge, including the ‘signature pedagogies’ of English. John Hattie, an internationally recognised education expert, writes that a crucial factor for improving the quality of student outcomes is not ‘the amount of knowledge’ a teacher has but “how teachers see the surface and the deeper understandings of the subjects that they teach”.
- We believe that these significant changes, which could be developed and implemented through the usual, established, cost-neutral routes in dialogue with DfE and Exam boards, would increase the range and breadth of English, better equip young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy, and improve their motivation and confidence.
- We noted the deleterious ‘knock on’ effect of the current GCSEs on KS3, making them ‘GCSE-lite’. Our recommendations would lead to a broadening of the KS3 curriculum. We also note the decreased A-level take up for English, which in turn reduces student employability. Our recommendations would increase the numbers of students taking A-level English Literature and A-Level English Language. Both these shifts would improve the preparedness of students for the world of work.
- We believe our recommendations would also improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession, and the recruitment, training and retention of teachers. These teachers provide crucial groundwork in training students for the future workplace.
- Put simply, the study of English at GCSE plays a foundational 'feeder' role in an entire ecosystem of learning, culture and commerce that, currently, it is not adequately fulfilling. We welcome the opportunity discuss these matters in more detail with the inquiry.
- This current submission builds on a document submitted to DfE by the Common English Forum in July 2022, GCSE English Language: Proposals for Curriculum Change. This made five very specific recommendations for GCSE English Language, which we support and append here. These were short-term, interim suggestions for immediate changes to the current GCSEs, to make a difference immediately rather than waiting for longer term reform.
- Recommendation 1: Remove the requirement for a 19th-century text. We recommend that no periods are specified for the texts to be studied, leaving this to the judgment of teachers.
- Recommendation 2: In the GCSE English Language qualification, offer opportunities for discussion and analysis of digital and other media texts.
- Recommendation 3: Reword Assessment Objective 2 so that it does not over-emphasis subject terminology.
- Recommendation 4: Encourage awarding bodies to include more varied writing tasks so that there are opportunities to write in a variety of forms that reflect and represent young people in the 21st century and support them in life, learning and employment.
- Recommendation 5: Make spoken language an integral part of the assessment.
Submission led by
Professor Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought, Royal Holloway, University of London firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Furzeen Ahmed, Associate Lecturer in English Language, University of Derby
Dr Carol Atherton, Head of English, Spalding Grammar School
Dr Joe Barber, Senior Lecturer in English Education, Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr Freddie Baverstock, Head of English, Harris Westminster Sixth Form
Barbara Bleiman, Editor of emagazine, Education Consultant, English and Media Centre
Professor Kamilla Elliott, Professor of Literature and Media, Lancaster University
Dr Andrew Green, Senior Lecturer in Education, Brunel University
Professor Gail Marshall, Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture, University of Reading
Dr Rachel Roberts, Lecturer in Secondary English Education, University of Reading
Dr Gary Snapper, Lecturer in English Education, University of Oxford
and other members of the Working Group
While we are a Working Group set up by disciplinary bodies, we write in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the Universities, Schools or Colleges to which we are affiliated.
28 April 2023
 The Humanities in the UK Today: What’s Going On? HEPI Report 159 (2023), p. 1 https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/The-Humanities-in-the-UK-Today-Whats-Going-On.pdf
 Qualified for the Future Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills (2020), p. 21 https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/1888/Qualified-for-the-Future-Quantifying-demand-for-arts-humanities-social-science-skills.pdf
 Cathy Davidson, The New Education: how to revolutionise the university to prepare students for a world in flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 140.
 Qualified for the Future Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills (2020), p. 22 https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/1888/Qualified-for-the-Future-Quantifying-demand-for-arts-humanities-social-science-skills.pdf
 The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group report (April 2021) found that the development of spoken language skills requires purposeful and intentional teaching and learning throughout children’s schooling. The Ofsted Research Review of English (July 2022) echoed this, noting that ‘The benefits of spoken language extend beyond just success at school. Becoming an articulate, effective communicator forms the basis of democratic engagement within wider society.’ At GCSE, teachers are obliged to undertake oracy assessment but it is given no value in the eyes of students and does not contribute to their grades.