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Aqa English Literature B Comparative Coursework

The New English GCSEs – Reality is Starting to Bite

Posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2016






I know we need to move on and in some respects it is pointless comparing but having just supported a North East school to prepare their Year 11 for IGCSE and for AQA cert in Literature, and then in addition to this put schemes of work and teacher training in place for the current Year 10 to support their students of the new GCSE AQA English Literature course, it is impossible not to feel a sense of injustice at the clear differences. Are our GCSE students heading for the same fate as the students who have just received their Year 6 Key Stage 2 results? It has been announced by the DFE that based on the publication of the most recent SATs results at KS2 the cohort has significantly underachieved in comparison to previous years. This is not because the students are weaker, or the teaching is of a lower standard, but because the government changed the tests so quickly and so radically, it was almost impossible to prepare students for success. Is this what the future holds for the students sitting the new GCSE examinations?

GCSE English Literature 2016

The current Year 11 students produced an extensive comparative coursework essay worth 40% of the GCSE. For the English Literature examination which is worth 60%, the current Year 11 had to select from one or two questions about ‘Journey’s End’ it was an open book exam and the nature of the text allows for a thorough exploration of every possible angle. They had one hour to complete this. They then had 45 minutes to analyse ONE unseen poem. They only have to have two assessment objectives to achieve this. We could also decide on which tier to allow for the less able students to benefit from the breakdown of the questions for ‘Journey’s End’ and a more straightforward poem in Section B. On the whole, the students felt very well prepared and had a very positive experience in the preparation for their English Literature examination.

GCSE English Literature for the 2017 Cohort

Alongside preparing Year 11, I have also been working with Year 10 to support their learning for the new English Literature and English Language exams. As far as I am concerned it is essential that these students have a full awarenessof what is expected of them, consequently we decided that this is best served by making them sit as much of the course as possible at the end of Year 10. Last week they sat two one hour 45-minute examination papers in English Language, and the Modern Text and Poetry GSCE English Literature paper. The Modern Texts and Poetry, Literature paper, is  60% of their English Literature GSCE. It is closed book – the students are not allowed to take any texts into the examination. For Section A we chose ‘An Inspector Calls’ and they get a choice of two essay questions – one on theme, the other on character. But there is no extract and no text; they have to remember quotations. This is a single entry paper so all students of every ability are expected to access these questions. They have 45 minutes to complete this. The next 45 minutes is to be spent on Section B – which is based on the Power and Conflict poetry. There are 15 poems to study. They cannot take an anthology in to the examination room, but one of the fifteen poems will be on the paper,  and then  they have to compare this poem with another poem from memory from the anthology. There are limited marks available for making these links, but nevertheless, the expectation is that these comparative technique needs to be taught if the students are to have any hope of accessing the very top grades. Finally, Section C, another 45 minutes. There are two unseen poems, the first poem is worth significantly more than the poem when there needs to be a comparative element, nevertheless, yet again preparing students for this as well as all of the other skills necessary for just this paper is a daunting task. Only 8 marks are allocated to the final comparison and the very end of a 2 hour 15 minutes. There is no doubt that the skills, approach and thought processes needed to completes this examination well, are far greater than on the 2016 paper.

The Past

It is the speed that all of this has been implemented that is the other major issue. It is an injustice to the current set of students that they most likely have not had a KS3 experience that prepares them for this style and approach. The current cohort of Year 7 students do not know any different as I have also put a whole new curriculum in place at KS3 to prepare them for the new style examinations.  One Year 10 student, when they saw how much challenge there was in the new Year 7 schemes, did comment “Why didn’t we start this kind of work earlier?”. He has a valid point. This is the ultimate problem with rushing all of this through. In many respects teachers are expected to be magicians, but we are not time lords, we cannot go back with these students and use KS3 as a period of time to get them prepared for 100% examinations, we have to just do our best with the limited time and the limited resources we have been given.

The Common Inspection Framework

We were told that the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework all schools would be judged in the same way. The reality for schools is that the results and the data are the biggest indicator of a school’s success, irrespective of what the inspectors’ see on the days in school. Where the disparity becomes more apparent, and the measure for success becomes biased, is that the private schools can sit IGCSE English Language until 2018, they can also write their own Literature papers hand have them verified by Ofqual. The Welsh, Northern Irish, Jersey and Guernsey students can carry on with the old style controlled assessments and examination style papers. It is the English state school children who will be labelled the under achievers if they cannot perform sufficiently well in this new style of examination. More specifically, it is the less academic working class students who are going to really struggle to reach their academic potential in such a radical change of approach towards measuring the attainment and success of students in English. If Ofsted continue to use results as their only benchmark for success, where will this leave the English state schools?


The reality is that until we know boundaries it is almost impossible to judge what these students need to do to achieve their target grades, in the way we have in recent years. They are saying that the equivalent students from the 2017 cohort will achieve the same as the 2016 students, and the boundaries will reflect this. If this is the case, why bother to change the course? The boards are not releasing how grades equate to marks for a couple of years, making it almost impossible for teachers to accurately predict grades. They are saying that colleges and schools can accept  a Grade 4 as a C equivalent to get into college and to do A levels for the 2017 students. Ultimately, we have to hope that they will be kind to the guinea pigs – my own son being one of them.


Schools need to be well planned for the logistics of every subject being so heavily weighted towards examinations. We also need to work on the well-being of the students in such highly pressured times. Schools must not underestimate the will of the students. One of my friends, a top student,  threw her Physics O Level exam to make sure she got a U so she wouldn’t have to enter the grade on her job applications. I also have distinct memories of when I was at school and some of the VERY CLEVER boys who just couldn’t be bothered with exams on the day simply wrote their name on the paper and went to sleep for a couple of hours until it was over…We need to have strategies in place to ensure this does not happen. There will be no coursework marks to motivate, no way of saying you have already achieved this, you only need this to get your A*/A/B/C. Teachers are going to have to put a great deal of thought into how we manage the welfare of the students in such a pressure cooker of stress and emotion. The focus has got to be technique and time management, not just content. It is also important to minimise the amount of content, to in turn minimise what they have to learn. Without modules and early entry, students will all be sitting examinations at the same time, and to cover all subjects this will take out weeks of the curriculum to put full mock programmes in place. It is necessary to allow the students to practice, but it will also limit what staff can teach, which is why many schools have changed to a three year GCSE course. We also have to hope that employers have some understanding of what this cohort of students have to do to achieve their grades in comparison with previous years. Unfortunately, I doubt that they do. Is the expectation that the 2017 cohort add a caveat to their applications to say, we sat this examination first, therefore a Grade 4 is a C?

The Future

The reality is that schools have to wholly adjust how they organise their curriculum, how they plan for assessments, how they use data, and how they predict results. Most importantly, they have to think very carefully about how they motivate students to ensure success. They will have to manage both the emotional and academic intelligence of the students. They must be taught to approach and manage the intense pressure that is unavoidable in a system with close to 100% examinations.  My daughter is in Year 6 and recently sat the new style SATs. She was totally unfazed (unlike the many tales of woe and stress I had to listen to from parents and in the press). Her analysis was that they were “much easier than the practice papers.” Although we are yet to receive her actual result. Let’s hope the new GCSE papers are ‘easier’ than the exemplar materials issued so far. With excellent preparation, lots of meaningful practice, lots of emotional support, and a focus on how to achieve linked to assessment objectives not target grades, we can cling on to the hope for success. If this does not happen, can we draw parallels with the huge drop in results and achievement at Key Stage 2, and assume this is what students and schools are going to face at GCSE? Ultimately, the difference is that not doing so well in your SATs at KS2 is disappointing, but it should not impact too greatly on your life long term. This is not the case for GCSE, it means students will have to re-sit, miss out on doing A levels, miss out on college courses, maybe feel so dejected about education that they drop out altogether.  Everyone in education needs to confront the reality of what we are facing. In particular, the exam boards have a major part to play in making the examination papers truly accessible to ensure that all of the current year 10 students have a chance of achieving the academic success they deserve.



This resource provides guidance on the non-exam assessment (NEA) requirements for A-level English Literature B, and should be read in conjunction with the NEA requirements set out in the specification. It develops and exemplifies the requirements, but is wholly consistent with them. Sample student responses accompany this guidance.

Given that a central tenet of Specification B is how meanings in literature arise and given that the specification encourages students to have their own voices, it is fitting that the title of the NEA component is ‘Theory and independence’. The purpose of this component is for students to explore aspects of their chosen prose and poetry texts through the lens of different critical ideas and for them to engage with the notion that meanings in literature are not fixed and are influenced by many external factors that may be brought to bear on texts. This area of the course provides a challenging and wide-ranging opportunity for an introduction to different ways of reading and for independent study. To that end, few restrictions are placed on the student’s freedom to choose their own texts and shape their own task but the following requirements must be met:

The introduction to the NEA should provide students with a detailed review of the above requirements and guidance on what it means to work independently (e.g. productive research skills, effective time management). The point at which students begin their NEA preparation will depend on individual school and college decisions. Schools and colleges may aim to introduce the NEA in the first year of the course. An appropriate opportunity would be the six weeks which follow the completion of AS examinations but other times will be available, especially where schools and colleges are not entering their students for AS.

Schools and colleges will differ in how they approach the NEA and this may be dependent upon whether:

These approaches are equally valid and take account of the different contexts in which schools and colleges will be working. What is important is that each approach recognises that a degree of autonomy in student text and task choice is required. Ideally a range of differentiated texts and tasks will be seen across a submission for this component. Students will, however, choose their texts and shape their tasks with your support (and you will be supported by your NEA Advisor) and the following offers you some guidance on how to help your students make these choices.

This component is supported by the AQA critical anthology, which has accessible extracts on a range of theoretical ideas. The six sections in the critical anthology encourage students to think about how literature might reflect and be affected by ideas about:

  • narrative construction and how the texts work (Narrative theory)
  • gender (Feminist theory)
  • economics and social organisation (Marxist theory)
  • nature and the survival of the planet (Eco-critical theory)
  • nationality, identity and power (Post-colonial theory)
  • aesthetics and value (Literary value and the Canon)
  • Obviously teachers will have to decide how the critical anthology will be introduced. Ideally, the theoretical material should be used to support and inform the reading of all texts studied during the whole course. If this is done, students will have gained a solid understanding of how texts can be interpreted in multiple ways thereby enabling them to arrive at their own interpretations and become confident autonomous readers. If students are not introduced to theoretical material prior to their NEA study, teachers will need to ensure that they are helped in their reading of the chosen sections of the critical anthology, from which students can choose critical views to apply. By studying these critical theories, they will see how meanings in texts can be laid open for negotiation and debate and students may choose to read beyond the extracts provided in the critical anthology.

    Advice on text choice

    The NEA component allows students and teachers much more freedom in the choice of texts than the examined components and so enables the aptitudes and interests of students to be taken into account when texts are being selected. When supporting students with their choice of texts, the following guidance is useful:

    • both texts should be of sufficient weight and of suitable ‘quality’ for A-level study; the set text lists for the examined components help to exemplify what is meant by a substantial text, particularly in relation to selecting an appropriate amount of poetry for the poetry ‘text’. Remember, however, that the A-level set texts cannot be used in NEA.
    • texts chosen for study must maximise opportunities for writing with reference to the AQA critical anthology
    • texts must allow access to a range of critical views and interpretations, including over time in the conventional response, which students can evaluate and apply autonomously.

    Advice on task choice

    We encourage schools and colleges to check task titles with their AQA NEA Adviser before students embark on their research, especially where there may be some uncertainty about the appropriateness of texts or the approach being taken.

    Of the two pieces of writing that make up the final folder, one must be a conventional response, of which examination essays are examples, but the other can be a re-creative piece if the student so wishes. The re-creative option requires a different approach and could provide more enjoyment and challenge. However, it is perfectly acceptable to produce two conventional pieces of work. The conventional piece could be presented in the form of literary journalism if the student so wishes, so long as it meets all the criteria.

    What is important, given that the NEA assesses all five assessment objectives (AOs), is that each task must allow access to them all. Students should be familiar with this concept by the time they approach the NEA as all AOs are tested in all questions in the examined components 1 and 2. The exemplar NEA responses are good examples of how access to all AOs is enabled by the task and the moderator commentary explains how the AOs have been addressed by the student.

    The conventional response

    A conventional essay will focus on debate and invite students to explore potential meanings in a literary text using critical theories and ideas. As with the examination questions, tasks need to address the assessment objectives, but with NEA there can be more flexible approaches.

    Exemplar student response E is not unlike those in Section B of the two examined components in that the student is responding to the extent to which he/she agrees with a given view. Whilst the directive to include relevant comment on authorial method is not explicit here, the importance of students integrating into their debates comment about the writer’s methods also applies here. Students should know their NEA text well so that they can discuss method in an explicit way, and can make judicious choices in their selection of supporting material.

    Given that the text being written about in this exemplar response is a novel, the discussion will be on narrative method. Comment on characterisation, sequencing, structure, voices, settings and language should be woven into the argument. In this task, a student would need to think about how Burgess’s methods have helped him or her to decide to what extent they can agree that A Clockwork Orange is a protest novel about the powerlessness of human beings against ruthless autocratic governments.

    It is worth considering how key terms in the exemplar task wording enable different AOs to be accessed:

    A Clockwork Orange is a protest novel about the powerlessness of human beings against ruthless autocratic governments.’

    Using ideas from the critical anthology to inform your argument, to what extent do you agree with this view?

    AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.

    In responding to the extent he/she agrees with the given view, AO1 will be tested through the way the student constructs the argument and expresses ideas.

    AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.

    AO2 is set up in the requirement for the student to focus on the ways Burgess has/has not presented A Clockwork Orange as a protest novel, and on the implied presentation of human beings as powerless and governments as ruthless and autocratic.

    AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.

    AO3 will be addressed through the student showing his/her understanding of a range of possible contexts which arise from power and powerlessness (e.g. cultural, gender, political and historical contexts), and of the feminist/Marxist readings of the text that are possible.

    AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.

    AO4 is targeted by the requirement to refer to the critical anthology, which is itself another text. The student will also connect implicitly with other ‘protest’ texts.

    AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.

    In debating the extent to which A Clockwork Orange is a protest novel about the powerlessness of human beings against ruthless autocratic governments, the student will directly engage with different interpretations.

    The re-creative response

    A re-creative response, supported by a commentary, allows students to explore aspects of a text and its potential meanings while at the same time experience enjoyment in the creative aspects of their task. The purpose of a re-creative response is to offer a critical reading of the base text that has been informed by working with the critical anthology.

    Re-creative work can find the ‘narrative gaps’ or ‘absence’ in a base text and by filling some of these gaps students offer a critical reading of the text. New light can be shed on a text and its potential ambiguities by re-creating part of it through a new voice and genre. A conventional reading of a text might be reconfigured by offering a reading from a different critical and/or contextual starting point.

    There is no requirement for students to replicate the form and language of the chosen base text, but the selection of narrative voice matters. It is often far more enlightening and interesting to present the point of view of a character who is at times marginalised as a voice in the base text.

    The re-creative piece has to be accompanied by a commentary in which the student needs to establish a clear connection between the re-creative piece, the base text and the relevant section of the critical anthology. The commentary should illustrate the significant choices that the student has made in the production of the re-creative piece accompanied by an explanation of how those choices have led to a critical reading. Both the re-creative piece and the commentary need to be incorporated in the 1200 -1500 word count. An equal word count between re-creative piece and commentary is not expected. The relative word count will depend upon the form of the re-creative piece and the detail needed in the commentary. The exemplar re-creative NEA responses exemplify these points.

    The unpacking of the assessment objectives in the re-creative task is slightly different in that there are two pieces of writing to consider: the re-creative piece itself and the commentary. It is worth considering how key terms in the wording of the task in exemplar student response A enable different AOs to be accessed:

    Using Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, write a monologue by Ulysses’ wife in which she reflects on the words he speaks.

    Use ideas from the critical anthology to inform your work and include a commentary explaining how you have explored ideas from Feminist Theory and/ or Marxist Theory and/ or Narrative Theory and /or Post- colonial Theory in your re-creative piece.

    AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.

    AO1 will be assessed across both the monologue and the commentary, where the latter will invite the use of critical concepts and terminology.

    AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.

    From the task it is clear that the student would need to demonstrate, in both the re-creative piece and in the commentary, an understanding of how monologues work in terms of structure, language and of voice.

    AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.

    The reflection of a wife on her husband’s words invites comment on gender contexts linked to the Victorian age in which Tennyson was writing. Focusing on his words as fiction and offering alternative words invites discussion of literary contexts.

    AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.

    The requirement to refer to the critical anthology will explicitly address AO4. In writing about monologues students will be showing their understanding of how the form works and implicitly be connecting with other monologues.

    AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.

    AO5 will be focused on in the commentary as the student reflects on different possible readings from the critical anthology and how these open up different interpretations.

    Advice on writing the NEA responses

    Having completed the study of their chosen texts, researched critical theories and devised an appropriate task, students will need guidance on how to pull their ideas together into a coherent response. Here again the exemplar NEA responses offer excellent examples of how to structure a sophisticated argument/re-creative piece and the moderator commentaries explain how these candidates achieve this. Some key points to note are:

    • the task should remain central to the argument
    • when considering the application of theoretical ideas, students should ensure that cohesion is retained when more than one theoretical area is applied
    • conventional responses benefit from close textual detail and precise references, which should be integrated relevantly into the argument
    • contexts and critical views should not be bolted on but instead should be woven through the response
    • a re-creative piece should be clearly anchored in the base text; the commentary should establish effective connections with both the critical anthology and the base text ; the student should make clear the conscious choices that have been made for this piece.
    • Supervising and authenticating students' work

      The role and responsibilities of the teacher in supervising and authenticating students’ work are set out in Section 6.1 of the specification. It is worthwhile emphasising that the teacher must confirm that each essay submitted is the work of the individual student. The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) document Instructions for conducting coursework provides further guidance about the level of support and guidance that is appropriate for teachers to provide to students. In accordance with JCQ guidance, the following support would not be acceptable:

      • having reviewed the candidate’s work, giving detailed advice and suggestions as to how the work may be improved in order to meet the assessment criteria
      • giving detailed indications of errors or omissions which leave the candidate no opportunity for individual initiative
      • giving advice on specific improvements needed to meet the assessment criteria
      • providing writing frames specific to the task (e.g. outlines, paragraph headings or section headings)
      • intervening personally to improve the presentation or content of the work.

      Awarding marks

      The role and responsibilities of teachers in submitting marks are set out in Section 6.6 of the specification. Please note that a mark out of 50 is required. This means that the mark you award against the assessment criteria for each response, which will be out of 25, should be added together and entered onto the candidate record form, before submitting marks to AQA.