A debate on the UN International Day of Education has been scheduled for Thursday 28 January 2021 in the main House of Commons Chamber. The debate was selected by the Backbench Business Committee and will be led by Harriett Baldwin MP.
Petition and Government response
E-Petition 200299 is entitled “Change the GCSE English Literature exam from closed book to open book” and says the following:
Last year, lots of students struggled with GCSE English Literature as it was a closed book exam. Because of this many failed. How can they expect us to remember quotes from 15 poems, plus how to analyse them, plus remembering the whole plot, themes, characters and quotes from another book.
Is it really fair that students have to remember so much, whilst also doing revision for other exams. It is important to know how to do all that is asked in the exams, but when in life will you ever have to remember lots of information about lots of texts, then be expected to recall it perfectly under pressured conditions, on top of loads of other stresses, then write about it for strangers to judge whether or not you are worthy of a good grade or not.
The Government response was provided by the Department for Education and was as follows:
Exam boards do not allow access to copies of whole texts in exams, but provide relevant extracts as exam materials. Pupils should be able to understand and analyse the texts, not memorise them.
We have reformed English GCSEs so that they are more rigorous. The new English literature GCSE encourages pupils to read a wide range of classic literature, including 19th century novels, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. The poetry selection has to include no fewer than 15 poems by at least five different poets, including the Romantic poets, and a minimum of 300 lines of poetry.
We were pleased to see the rise in English literature GCSE entries in 2017. It is important that as many pupils as possible have the opportunity to study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial texts from our literary heritage. When a wider range of pupils enters a subject this can change the nature of the cohort. Ofqual’s statistical approach to awarding means that, if the cohort’s ability remains broadly the same, the same proportion of pupils would get a grade 4 (standard pass) and above compared to the previous year. Ofqual, the independent qualifications regulator in England, found overall results for 16 year old students in English literature to have remained stable at grade 4/C. Therefore any change in the proportion of top grades (grade 7/A) was likely due to a change in the profile of the candidates rather than difficulty of the exam.
Ofqual’s regulatory requirements, which reflect DfE’s content requirements, are designed to reward students who have gained a deep understanding of literature and who have read widely throughout the course. Ofqual does not prohibit access to all textual material during an exam. Rather it requires that where an exam board provides students taking the exam with, for example, an extract from a novel, a scene from a play or a poem, this forms part of the exam materials. Ofqual therefore sets out an expectation that pupils will be given extracts of texts during their exams and are clear in their guidance that they do not expect students to be given a complete novel, play or anthology of poems.
Pupils are not required to memorise texts and will not be awarded good marks simply by memorising and writing out sections of the poems or texts they have studied. The mark schemes for the reformed qualification reflect the fact that students will not have access to all the texts, and do not expect extensive quotes from memory. Pupils may gain extra marks through the intelligent use of quotations, but the requirement is about pupils’ illustrating their interpretations of the text, and so demonstrating their understanding of the question, and quotations can be part of this.
The changes we have made are designed to reward pupils for reading and understanding important literature and appreciating it at a deeper level. For those engaging at this level, this will be a good preparation for A level for those choosing to study English post-16.
 Subject level Conditions and Requirements: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gcse-9-to-1-subject-level-conditions-and-requirements-for-english-literature
Department for Education
Background – reforms to exams
Examination as the only form of assessment
GCSEs have undergone significant reform in recent years, first under the Coalition, and subsequently under the Conservative Government. The Library has a briefing on GCSE, AS and A level reform, 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.
‘Closed book’ examination
Exam regulator 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)
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’.
Articles and other material
The following articles discuss relevant issues and may be of interest:
- Ofqual, Guide to GCSE results for England, 2017, 24 August 2017.
- Researchers at St. John’s University, New York, Retention of text material under cued and uncued recall and open and closed book conditions, 2016
- TES, New English GCSE shows ‘breathtaking ignorance’ of dyslexia, teacher says, 2 June 2015
- Schools Week, English literature GCSEs could breach equality laws, claims SEN teacher, 2 June 2015
- Ofqual, GCSE English literature – learning and understanding, not memory, 18 March 2015
- NEJM, Open-Book vs. Closed-Book Exams, 2015
- Educational Theory and Practice blog, Open-note vs. Closed-book Exams, 2013
- Ryerson University, Toronto, Open Book exams (undated)
- Researchers at Washington University, St Louis, Examining the Testing Effect with Open- and Closed-Book Tests, 2007
April 2017 debate on a similar petition
There was a debate on a similar petition on 24 April 2017 (HC Deb 24 April 2017 cc425-434WH). Summing up for the Government, Education Minister Nick Gibb outlined the rationale for the current ‘closed book’ arrangements:
In the past, pupils have been able to take either annotated or clean copies of the studied texts into the exam, but that risks undermining the requirement for them to have studied in detail the whole text as part of their course. That requirement is important, and it is particularly relevant in poetry. If pupils know they will be given access to the whole text of a poem as part of their exam, they may feel they do not need to study the whole poem, or the whole array or anthology of poems, as they can do the reading during the exam. In addition, if pupils had the text available to them, it would shape the expectations of the exam. For example, if they can refer to the text, exam questions and their mark schemes would expect a much more detailed and extensive use of quotes and references. As it is, questions and mark schemes for the new qualifications are written in the knowledge that pupils will not have access to the text, and the expectations are moderated accordingly. The same relates to questions in which extracts are provided. For example, if an extract from a novel or a Shakespeare play is provided, clear and detailed references and quotes may be expected, and papers marked accordingly.
it is not clear that providing a copy of the text would represent an advantage to a pupil. If a pupil is not already aware of, or able to recall, broad issues such as the themes and context of the texts they have studied, having a copy of the text with no notes or annotations will not help them. Indeed, Ofqual has pointed out that pupils might in fact be disadvantaged if they were provided with the text. A comparatively short exam does not give time for pupils who are unfamiliar with, or who have forgotten, the themes or structure of the text to use the text in the exam to demonstrate the understanding expected. Additionally, even if pupils have a good understanding of the text prior to the assessment, there is a risk that they might spend significant portions of the exam searching for quotes or references in the mistaken belief that that will secure them high marks. Again, unless the text is provided, the mark schemes for the reformed qualifications do not expect extensive quotes from memory.
Finally, the practice of pupils taking copies of texts into the exam creates practical problems for exam boards and centres. The majority of text editions come with an introduction, notes and a glossary. These annotated texts are immensely helpful in the classroom and would be the most obvious choice for an English department budget. However, such texts would not be appropriate in the exam room, and centres would need to purchase an extra set of texts free of textual additions. Not only is it difficult and, in some cases, impossible to source text-only editions, it would also be a major expense. (c433-434WH)
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