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Petition and Government response

The Parliamentary petition to authorise ‘open book’ examinations for this year’s GCSE English Literature exam has reached more than 100,000 signatures.  (A similar petition, with over 90,000 signatures to date, is in place relating to formula sheets and GCSE mathematics.)

The petition and the Government response are as follows:


The introduction of closed book examinations, for GCSE English Literature, requires students to learn and memorise quotes for this exam.  There are 2 literature papers which include the content of: 15 poems, 2 plays and 1 novella.  Exams shouldn’t be a test on the student’s memory, but how we interpret texts.

Government response

GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full texts of the books and poems they study. Students will not need to remember the exact words of poems by heart in order to succeed.

The GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full texts of the books, drama and poems they study. It requires students to study a range of intellectually challenging and substantial whole texts in detail including Shakespeare, 19th-century novels, Romantic poetry, and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. The content requires students to study no fewer than 15 poems by at least five different poets, and a minimum of 300 lines of poetry. The assessment arrangements must reflect those requirements and is designed to reward students who have gained a deep understanding of literature and who have read widely throughout the course.

The content also requires that students are examined on texts which they have not read previously (‘unseen’ texts). Students will need to read widely during their studies to prepare them for the ‘unseen’ text in the exam and to be able to critically compare and contrast a range of texts using ‘relevant quotation and detailed textual references’ to demonstrate the breadth of their understanding of literature. These ‘unseen’ texts might, but do not have to be, by authors whose works students have studied as set texts. 

We do not expect awarding organisations to give or allow students to have access during their exams to copies of the whole texts they have studied. Exam boards can, however, provide students with relevant extracts. The exam boards have each chosen in their sample assessment materials to provide students with extracts of the texts they have studied. 

Students should not be misled into believing that they will get good marks simply by memorising and writing out the poems or texts they have studied. Students will not need to learn and remember the exact words of poems or texts by heart. 

To gain good marks, students will need to be able to show that they are familiar with the texts – that they have studied them – and that their understanding is sufficiently developed to be able to compare them with other texts that might have been given to them in the exam. The student will need to write about a poem they have studied and that is not given to them in the exam, but that does not require them to reproduce the text in full. Rather it requires students to recollect details from the poem so as to compare it with one provided in the exam. 

The former Chief Regulator’s blog written in 2015 made it clear that GCSE English literature is about understanding not memory
Ofqual’s Regulatory Conditions and Guidance documents for GCSE English are available here

Reforms to exams

GCSEs have undergone significant reform in recent years, under first the Coalition and subsequently under the Conservative Government.  It may be of interest to see the Library briefing on GCSE, AS and A level reform, SN 06962, for background.

Much of the debate about the reforms to GCSE English Literature has previously focused on the removal of coursework from the assessment process, with the subject assessed entirely through examinations – this was consistent with the general approach taken across GCSE reform, with examinations used to assess as much of subjects as was considered possible.

The relevant Ofqual consultation response stated:


We believe that the curriculum content for English literature can be the same for all students and that all students can be assessed in the same way. We propose that the reformed GCSE in English literature should not be tiered.

Forms of assessment

We do not believe there are any skills in the draft content for English literature that could not be validly assessed by written exam, set and marked by the exam board.

Our review of controlled assessment found that there are some elements of current GCSE requirements for English literature that can only be assessed by internal assessment, such as the ability to plan and produce extended responses to texts. However, we also found that the time limits and restrictions of controlled assessment limit the scope for students to develop those re-drafting and evaluation skills. We know from our review that the advice from exam boards about what assistance and feedback can be given to students is open to interpretation, which means that assessment may not necessarily be fair to all students. We have asked exam boards to remedy this situation and we will be watching developments closely.

We therefore propose that all assessment for the reformed English literature GCSE should be by written exams alone and that the total assessment time should be no less than 3.5 hours.

The summary of changes to GCSEs published by Ofqual in November 2013 stated:

[English literature] will be assessed wholly by exam. Five per cent of the marks will be allocated to accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. (pg 5)

Previous GCSEs used 25% coursework.

The changes to English Literature included that, as part of the assessment, studied texts would be unseen in examinations.  The DfE’s GCSE subject content and assessment objectives state (emphasis added):

Comparing texts: comparing and contrasting texts studied, referring where relevant to theme, characterisation, context (where known), style and literary quality; comparing two texts critically with respect to the above.

fn: In the examination, these texts must be unseen. (pg 5)

Ofqual’s GCSE Subject Level Guidance for English Literature, published in May 2014, states:

We do not expect an awarding organisation to provide a whole text as Stimulus Materials for an assessment for a GCSE Qualification in English Literature. (pg 5)

This is a new requirement.  Previously available GCSE English Literature specifications published by Pearson and OCR both allowed pupils access to unannotated or ‘clean’ copies of the texts

The GCSE specifications that have been approved by Ofqual for teaching since 2015 are available from the DfE website.  All specify that examinations are ‘closed book’.


The following articles discuss relevant issues and may be of interest:

Public Engagement

The Petitions Committee asked TES online and the Student Room online forums to discuss the issue of open book exams for GCSE English Literature ahead of the petition debate on Monday 24 April.

A summary of the key themes raised in the forum discussions is attached to this page in a PDF.

Documents to download