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12 August 2020
By Zoe Enser

Dealing with Dilemmas: English Literature Exams 2021

If 2020 hadn’t already thrown enough difficulties in our path, the recent changes to the exam series for 2021 have ensured that there is even more dilemma to explore. The changes to the assessment for Literature in 2021 have, without a doubt, been a little controversial. A wide range of voices have raised their concerns, and this can make deciding what is the best approach for your students difficult. Front page news and eminent names such as Simon Armitage and David Crystal can put pressure on us to make decisions which may not be our first choice. The worst-case scenario from my point of view is knowing that the coverage means there will be students who turn up to class in September announcing they don’t need to do poetry anymore, despite what their teacher is telling them! That is always the problem when headlines lead on decisions in education. We of course know it is never as simple as that and what we really need is a more measured approach, with time to ensure that, whatever option we decide to go for, will be one that is informed by the needs of our students, their context and our professional knowledge.

In light of this, here are my key tips to making the decision this year and how to avoid getting swept up into the maelstrom of headlines, personal preferences and confusion.

What is the Exam Board Actually Proposing?

Many people began to decry to loss of the poetry unit before it has even been made clear as to whether students will be assessed on the unseen poetry or what the other options might be. If the unseen remains, which seems likely, then you could look at this in two ways: first the concerns that students won’t be prepared for life beyond GCSE as they don’t have a good grounding in poetry is not going to be a problem. A level students will be able to continue relatively seamlessly into their studies. Secondly this might mean that you will teach the poetry unit anyway to prepare them for this option. If so, you may want to stick with the poetry anyway and look at removing one of the other options.

Play to Your Strengths

Look at historical data from the exams and see how your students have tended to perform in the different options. It might be there is an area which your students clearly favour. Equally it might be that your team has greater confidence in teaching one particular unit so it would make sense to keep this.

Think About the Student's Experiences

What was happening in lockdown? What had they shown signs of struggling with before schools closed? It will be a very different picture for different schools so again it is about making choices which are right for your students.

Think Holistically

Yes, exam results matter but they are just one element of why we teach our subject. You may decide that what you want is to teach the full course regardless because having a deep understanding of the whole of the course is what matters most. If what literature offers them is more than a number on a certificate then we might want to factor that in. It is worth considering what will be lost to their broader understanding of literature if something is removed completely and if it will impact on the other units anyway.

Don't Feel Pressured to Rush Your Decision-Making

Finally, don’t feel decisions need to be rushed. Take time to explore, discuss and even, shock horror, teach things which you know might not be on the final assessment. All the literature options have the potential to enrich and develop a deeper understanding of each other when taught as part of a whole course. We can refine revision and deliberate practice later in the year, even making decisions on a class by class basis if that is what the data from our classes seem to suggest.

Whatever you decide, I know you will do it for reasons which go well beyond the headlines and focus on what will ultimately benefit your students. Trust your own and your teams’ knowledge of the students and I’m sure you will provide the best option for your students.

If you would like to explore any of this further please don’t hesitate to email me at zoe.enser@theeducationpeople.org