Teachers left angry over decision to make poetry compulsory for GCSE students

The benefit to students who have spent months out of classroom due to Covid-19 will be ‘partially lost’, a headteachers’ union warns.


An exam board’s decision to make poetry compulsory for students taking GCSE English literature next summer has prompted anger among teachers.

Ofqual announced last month that schools and colleges in England would no longer have to cover all four subject areas as planned after students faced months out of the classroom due to the pandemic.

England’s exams regulator said pupils would have to be assessed on a Shakespeare play, but schools and colleges could decide from two of three topics: poetry; 19th century novel; and post-1914 British fiction or drama.

However, exam board AQA has decided to make poetry study compulsory alongside Shakespeare – even though Ofqual suggested that centres would be given the choice over the content that must be taught.

Some teachers complained on Twitter that they had only taught pupils the two subject areas which AQA announced were optional, with one describing it as “patently unfair”.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is calling for the proposals to be reconsidered.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, described the situation as “hugely frustrating”, as he said schools had planned on the basis they believed they would be given a choice over the topics to study.

Exam board Edexcel has decided to make questions on the post-1914 text compulsory alongside Shakespeare in next year’s English literature exam.

Mr Barton said: “It turns out that there was room for interpretation in Ofqual’s decision, and some exam boards have decided there will be two compulsory questions. If this stands, it means that curriculum planning which took place over the summer will have to be revisited and plans redrawn.”

He added: “This is the last thing that schools need when they are already juggling so many different demands.

“It also means that the benefit of giving students more optionality in GCSE English literature in recognition of the disruption to learning caused by the Covid lockdown will be partially lost.

“We are today writing to the exam boards to express our concern and disappointment, and asking them to reconsider their proposals.”

In a statement on Friday afternoon, AQA said it was “taking another look” at its English literature changes following feedback from students and teachers.

In August, the exams watchdog decided to offer a choice of topics in next year’s English Literature papers following “significant concern” about the ability to cover all the required content in the time available.

The move came after 48% of consultation respondents opposed plans to leave the exam unaltered, as they highlighted difficulties with pupils trying “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

The consultation outcome from Ofqual said: “Centre level choice of topics for students to be examined on will reduce the volume of content a student will need to cover and on which they will be examined.”

It added: “The Government has agreed that there can, for 2021 only, be a choice of topics on which students are required to answer questions in their exams.

“We have therefore decided to allow exam boards to change the way they assess GCSE English literature in summer 2021 so that centres will have the option to focus on particular texts.”

A footnote in Ofqual’s consultation document said exam boards may extend the number of “core” topics.

Pauline McPartlan, head of curriculum for English at AQA, said: “Nothing is more important to us than our teachers and students, so we’re taking another look at our GCSE English literature changes to see if we can do something closer to what schools were expecting.

“We know how important it is to do this quickly, so we’ll be back in touch with schools after the weekend.”

A spokesman for exam board OCR said: “We’re still engaging with Ofqual on our changes to GCSE English literature but our plans are for Shakespeare to be the only compulsory topic for students to answer questions on, and then a choice of two of the three remaining topics.”

An Ofqual spokeswoman said: “We have permitted exam boards to change the way they assess GCSE English literature in summer 2021 so that centres will have some choice in the content to be covered with the option to focus on particular texts.”

On their decision to make Shakespeare compulsory, she added: “We also said that exam boards were permitted to add to that common core if they wished.

“Some exam boards have chosen to do this.”

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