After results: thoughts and comment on Edexcel Certificate English Language

The writing below is based on my own feelings and is not intended to be representative of the feelings of my school in any way.

Well, 2013 saw thousands of hits through May and June – over a thousand a day in May as the exams approached. I hope that anyone who used the site to assist their revision has been rewarded now that the results have emerged and the dust has settled. My commiserations for any missed targets and congratulations for successes. Actually, congratulations all round. If you bothered to come here, you were working hard and hopefully found reward. Last year I congratulated some of my class by name and again this year: The two stars -Bhavneet and Kokilaraj and all the A grades in language -Aman, Ravina, Jo, Deepika, not forgetting Lauren in Lit. All this from a “bottom” set. I think I had said all along that I believed the only reason for the setting was attitude, not ability and you have shown this. Congratulations class 11EY3, you all deserve it!

So, what of my feelings?

Thus was the first cohort to sit the Edexcel Certificate in both language and literature. This is the state school version of IGCSE and was examined for the first time this year. A jump into the unknown for all concerned. There are several posts on Twitter and various edublogging sites, not to mention carefully placed newspaper articles suggesting that IGCSE is a simple option and that schools have jumped to it for that reason. This simply insults my students this year and those at my school – the last Y11 at Slough Grammar School or first Yr 12 at Upton Court Grammar, depending on how you view the name change!

We changed to the certificate route in Yr 10 before the furore over the marking of GCSE last year. At that point we were teaching the WJEC GCSE model and attained the best results for a long time. We worked hard to try to second guess the manner in which marks would be attained in what was a new exam model and supported students through the whole CA process. Indeed this was the real reason for the shift not the seeking of an easy exam, but a strong dislike of the CA process. Too many hours spent writing in class with no possibility of a second draft to tighten up the prose. What coherence can be expected from a 4 hour essay based on a Shakespeare play, a pair of poems AND a selection of other poems? – my title based on 12th Night ran to about 3 lines. Rather than encouraging drafting and developing of a coherent essay, the students worked for up to an hour at a time spread over 5 lessons – 2 weeks. Daft.

Another problem was that the short creative writing units for which title “might” be given in advance (so they were) produced licensed plagiarism. In essence, many students prepared their essays prior to the session, either with a sibling or even with a tutor and simply learned it. Sadly for some, it takes less time to write from memory and the paragraphs tacked onto the writing in the spare time at the end of the hour actually lost marks in some cases. Silly.

When added to the oral element, students have attained up to 40% of their marks in many cases, before even beginning to work on the examinations. This is not a bad thing per se, but in the face of accusation and anecdote suggesting that some schools might just bend the rules enough to ensure that a good score is attained, it is hardly surprising that GCSE came in for scrutiny and criticism (to leave politics out of it!).

So against this background we decided to move…

My feelings about the edexcel certificate are mixed, but generally positive. To outline them, based on Language rather than literature, they breakdown thus:

The first exam is not well structured and I am concerned about any paper which is so open to potential pitfalls based on the short time available to answer the 6 or 7 questions. There is simply too much going on here. When the paper is worth 70% of the whole this is even more worrying. We put huge emphasis on this for the Yr11s taking the exam and ensured that we weighted the mock exam marking to reflect the imbalance. The whole school results suggest that our message got through – 96%A*-B.

Still with a result as good as this, it is easy to see how the accusation of an easier board comes around. We do have many fewer Cs than in recent years.

This can be partially explained by sites such as this, offering a whole new revision experience and by the school Youtube site SGS EnglishDepartment and the @SGS_English twitter page. All offering support and backed up by the use of Edmodo in some classes to offer targeted and specific support throughout the run up to the exams. This ignores the several weeks of support classes offered after school… we didn’t get a lot of rest! However, is it easier?

It may be that boys often perform strongly in exams, but last-minute revision is precluded by the sheer amount of material to be prepared beforehand in this exam model. The language anthologies require detailed recall of 11 pieces of non fiction writing from a range of genres and a group of 5 short stories and 6 poems from which the questioning can be on either format. The writing is not short and although students can “learn” what to write, the short time allowed for response (about 20-25 mins in the case of the non fiction) means that every piece has to be prepared thoroughly. The accusation has been levelled that we all have to teach to the test to accomplish this and, to a degree, I accept this and do not like it, but a teacher who takes this route has to accept that in paper 1, 1/3 of the marks are based on analysis of an unseen non-fiction passage. Without a good grasp of the skills of analysis, such an approach simply will not produce a satisfactory result in this part of the exam.

My criticism is levelled at the rest of the paper – the creative writing. The tasks are broad and there is little clear guidance about how the writing is assessed – how much narrative is acceptable in a description, or example. I am more worried that the first piece, based on the “theme” of the anthology piece used for analysis is really allowed only around 20-25 minutes. In order to plan, think, adjust, proof read and so on, I do not feel this is enough. The second piece of writing can be spread over 40 minutes or so – much more suitable. Obviously as we see the evidence of a few recalled papers, these issues will diminish.

The second language paper is worth only 20%. The issue here is that there are simply not enough %points available to rescue a weak paper 1, or conversely, that a strong paper 1 can guarantee an A grade without many marks being accrued in paper 2. Thus, students who underprepare their short stories and poems might not suffer too much. There are still marks for more creative writing in this paper which should help to boost the grades over a C. I feel this is a genuine issue. It should not be possible to guarantee a C without even sitting the second paper, surely?

Still, the papers are not easy in themselves. Children can not be blamed for the marking structure built into the papers. In the end they still have to produce satisfactory work in a short time slot on a given day. There is no chance of external assistance in the work and the exams texts ensure a good range of material being covered. The exam will not suit everyone, but I hope that there is not a knee-jerk reaction based on the misguided idea that students like those I teach have somehow subverted the system and therefore need a radical change in approach next year. It is rather a sad indictment of my mood as a teacher today that on results day, my comments to my HOD were not based on excitement about how well our students had done, but on my fear that results like ours might lead to a good exam being subject to radical alteration because it is deemed “easy”. It isn’t. And my students in 11EY3 deserve a huge pat on the back for their hard work and excellent results. – So does my son in 11EY2, but that’s another story!