In this sequence of posts, we’ve already looked at how far the English Language GCSE is (un)fit for purpose in terms of defining a curriculum and assessing attainment or progress. In this post, we’re looking at next steps.
We’ll explore how well the GCSE:
- Functions as a qualification that demonstrates to employers a certain level of proficiency in language use.
- Prepares pupils for the study of English Language at a higher level.
Money, Money, Money
The CBI publish an annual education and skills survey which outlines, in part, their thoughts on how well the education system prepares people for the world of work. The findings, each year, are fairly similar. The 2017 report, Helping the UK Thrive, states that the CBI believes primary schools should focus on “core skills such as literacy.” It goes on to explain that “Businesses believe that as well as helping young people after 11 to develop core competences of self-management (37%) and literacy and numeracy (36%), schools and colleges could be doing more to enable them to develop technical skills (25%) by applying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) knowledge.” The percentages indicate the proportion of respondents who felt each aspect was an issue. Literacy and numeracy clearly remain a priority, according to this annual survey.
If employers are concerned with the literacy levels of potential employees, then you might think that their faith in the school assessment model might be weakening. However, the findings in this YouGov report would suggest that this is not the case. Employers have fairly high levels of confidence in the GCSE system.
So, perhaps from an employer’s perspective the English language GCSE is actually alright. Except, and this is especially the case following 2017’s change to the grading system, what can employers actually infer about applicants reading and writing skills from a grade in English language. Which grade should they use to make a cut in applications if quality of communication skills is important to them? 4? 5? 6? 7? What might an employer expect of a grade 4 reader and writer – someone who has met the national expectation in English? What should they expect? For most employers, this isn’t seen as a problem as there is an assumption made that passing a GCSE in English language provides a potential employee with the required level of literacy to function beyond the school gates. Yet, the language GCSE is weighted more towards analysis and (restricted) creativity than it is towards anything functional and students who have relatively inaccurate spelling, punctuation and grammar can secure a pass.
I wonder whether a reason some employers believe schools don’t prepare students for work in terms of literacy is actually because they have a misguided faith in the language GCSE and are disappointed to discover the reality. Moreover, some employers are surely making inferences from employees’ results which the qualification is not set up to reliably assess.
The GCSE may be considered to be a reliable qualification by many employers, but there are misunderstandings, I think, in terms of the information it provides them with.
The Name of the Game
Whilst many employers have fairly high levels of confidence in the English GCSE, it seems A-Level English language teachers have not.
There is a significant difference between English language at GCSE level and the content of the curriculum at A-Level.
The A-Level language teachers who responded to this survey felt there needs to be changes to the GCSE so that there is:
- A greater focus on sociolinguistics – an exploration of language change over time, attitudes to different accents or idiolects.
- An appreciation of language use as a discourse or a social construct – exploring how language is used by individuals and groups to gain and exploit their power.
- A reduction in the formulaic nature of the questions at GCSE level.
- Some assessment of students’ analysing spoken language.
None of these would necessarily make the qualification less useful as a means for employers to differentiate between literate and less literate candidates and, arguably, some would make it more useful for employees. All of them would bring the qualification more in line with the language A-level and would provide it with the subject content it currently lacks.
The Winner Takes It All
The issue, yet again, here is that the language qualification is strained to be too many things for too many people. At the moment, no one really wins – though it seems some believe they do.