The Problem with GCSE English Literature – The Children Don’t Know How to Answer the Question.


The Problem with GCSE English Literature – The Children Don’t Know How to Answer the Question. It really is that simple.

On average I speak with upwards of twenty parents a week and the most common requirement for tuition and reason for the call is simple.

“My child doesn’t know how to write the answer in the exam.”

It really is that simple. 

The young person understands ‘Macbeth’, fully appreciates what the poems in the Anthology are going on about and gets the political nuances of ‘An Inspector Calls’ but when it comes to actually answering in the exam, under exam conditions, it is at this point that the student falls apart.

In fairness this is as a result of taking what should be a relatively straightforward concept of assessment and over complicating it to the point of utter, unnecessary confusion.

2015 signalled a complete overhaul of the GSCEs and of course the English Literature exam. Coursework was banished to a chapter in exam history entitled “Sailing Close to the Wind / Bending the Rules”. The ‘closed book’, extract question was introduced and significantly the tiered entry system of Foundation and Higher, which tailored questions to suit ability was deemed no longer relevant.

The first problem it would seem is “The Extract”


This style of question absolutely stumps most of our young people.  A brief extract is printed on the exam paper and used as a starting point, spring board for the answer and this causes complete chaos.

If anything, students answer more succinctly and analytically when the extract is removed and they just explore the whole text.  

The second is “Compare” when it comes to the poetry.

The main exam boards produce thematic, “seen” poems, 15 for AQA and 18 for WJEC and this again is proving problematic as young students don’t understand the concept of what they comparing and significantly why they are comparing.


A further “compare” is with two unseen, never studied before poems and the second question is simply to compare methods not themes!


Additionally, there are marks for SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) not to forget the marks for including the significance of historical context, with some, not all questions.

The problem with English Literature is simple, unlike the overly complicated assessment framework that sits behind the exam.

The Problem is this…

There are five huge content based components, without enough curriculum time to cover. (Hence GCSE Literature begins in Year 9 and don’t get me started on how that is completely too soon.)

The impact on GCSE English Language is massive. Schools steal from this subject all the time to cover the enormity of the Literature content.

Early Entry Year 10 is becoming the solution in many schools and funnily enough, I have a whole bag of opinions on this. The Literature exam is unnecessarily complicated and unfair.

It isn’t designed for young people to showcase their knowledge and love of literature but straight-jackets them into jumping through unnecessary hoops and displaying skills that overly complicate the relatively straightforward assessment framework of AOs and in turn is actually dangerously close to achieving the very opposite of what the examination system sets out to do… Turn our young people off from a love of the finest subject on the syllabus.

This makes me very sad.

You have 45 mins to answer the question below…

8 Responses

  1. As an English tutor specialising in Literature, I totally agree with you. Most of my time is spent with students trying to explain how to answer the question. It has become a game about strategics, not about the love and appreciation of literature. There isn’t time to teach them to a point of understanding, they are completely focused on terminology without meaning!! They do not understand the writer’s craft, the writer’s meaning, etc. It is criminal!! I feel extremely passionate about this, especially taking away the Foundation and Higher levels…..really!!! It is so unfair to lower level students, who I find are tuning out…..!!

    1. Thank you for your comment, it is always good to know that I am not alone.
      I have reverted to telling them how to answer and showing them how to answer them keep doing this until it sinks in!

      There will be an outcry soon that A Level Lit is discontinued! No prizes for guessing why those numbers have dropped.

  2. I so agree. I am a tutor too and with lower ability! So why oh why have they got rid of the lower tier? !! It is so sad as the questions are so hard to understand and in English language too !! I remember writing actual essays with great freedom when doing O levels.I am quite old ha ha !
    I feel the lower ability child is very disadvantaged.

    1. “I feel the lower ability child is very disadvantaged.”

      I suspect that this was the intention behind the Goves inspired changes, but is that a new phenomenon?

      1. You’re absolutely right, the lower ability child being at a disadvantage is not new. However, the new structure for the GCSE has widened the gap and made the exams even more inaccessible for this type of learner.

  3. I totally agree. The complicated layout of the questions confuses the child. The emphasis on English Literature puts children off reading generally. As a tutor myself, I hate the way a love of English language is not being cultivated.

  4. I was literally just discussing this with a colleague.
    The exemplars are completely unhelpful and there seems to be this vague ‘ideological’ response from the exam boards. I want the children in my care to love how language has been used but they are 16, they have 25 other exams, they have 45mins – they need a format so that their vast knowledge is ‘presented’ in a way that allows them to be awarded the marks they deserve. This becomes even more pressing for the 3/4 borderline students and below.
    And would it be so bad to let them take a blank anthology in? Is the 8 mark question really necessary on the unseen – I get that it is used to identify those higher grades but it’s just another thing for tired students to remember to do after 2 other essays. And the only bonus of the 19th century novel is a muffled snigger over the double entendres and we trudge through the turgid prose which is again fine, if the students like reading etc but even with a myriad of voices etc I see the boys’ eyes glaze over.
    I miss Of Mice and Men. Loved that book and so did the children.
    Ah well…

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