At NACE member and Challenge Award-accredited school Chelsea Academy, learners achieved 41 grade 9s this summer. In this blog post, the school’s curriculum leader for English, Emily Rawes, explores the impact of the new English GCSE curriculum on more able learners and their teachers.
When AQA offered their initial training programme, briefing teachers about the make-up of the new GCSE English Language and Literature course, it felt that the specification was targeted largely at more able learners. AQA felt the more able were “reined  in” by the old specification and wanted to free them from the shackles. The awarding body came under fire at meetings from teachers who were concerned about how they were catering for those who were less able, and AQA provided more structure and clarity about the specification.

AQA’s vision stuck and they doggedly discussed how they wanted to distinguish the grade 8 (A*) from the elusive grade 9 (A**). This grade 9 began to feel increasingly unattainable as the challenges of the changes dawned on teachers once teaching commenced. This started with the text choices, with many texts, such as The History Boys, moving from A-level to GCSE. Challenges were also presented by the longer exams, the compulsory study of the Victorian novel, the removal of controlled assessment, the use of closed-book assessment, and the questions themselves.
There were challenges for students and teachers alike. The more able learners themselves were anxious about the changes and understandably felt short-changed when comparing themselves to previous cohorts. I would argue that the more able were under more pressure than ever to perform (as were their teachers), and this was visibly seen in the anxiety displayed by students.
However, with a range of successful teaching and learning strategies, a positive classroom ethos and a lot of class collaboration, the top end has thrived. This, I believe, is down to the challenge posed by more gritty text choices and the freedom offered by the removal of controlled assessment – but it is ultimately up to the teacher now, more than ever, to sell their subject to students, as it does not all seem immediately engaging.
The time freed up from the removal of controlled assessment is also invaluable, but needs to be used wisely – with a mix of classroom discussion, engagement strategies and exam practice skills – so that the more able can effectively demonstrate their ability in these rigorous conditions. Cross-curricular knowledge and academic ability has also become more important, with a greater percentage of marks available for contextual links; this has proven true with the students achieving grade 9s in English achieving equally impressive results in history, RE and other humanities subjects. It is therefore now more important than ever for departments to collaborate.
The most significant change on the English language side, alongside the removal of controlled assessment, is the increase in the weighting of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. There is a much greater emphasis on originality and flair being rewarded in students’ writing, and they are asked to write with a sophisticated control of punctuation. Gone are the days where the more able could pick up marks for “range of punctuation used” almost by using a checklist, ticking off their punctuation marks as they go. The grade 9, quite rightly in my opinion, asks for more. It is therefore the job (and delight) of the English teacher to expose students to a range of challenging and exciting reading material, and thus develop their own writing craft and style.
Emily Rawes is the curriculum leader for English at Chelsea Academy and an accredited Lead Practitioner. Under her leadership, the English team achieved outstanding success this summer, with 88% of students achieving grade 4 or above in at least one English qualification. Just under a third (32%) achieved grades 9-7 in English literature, with a total of 29 grade 9s across language and literature. The value added for sets 1 and 2 fell into the Alps grade 1 category.
How have learners and teachers at your school responded to the new English GCSE curriculum? Contact us to share your experience.

Monday, October 2, 2017