Is English an 'easy' subject?

Posted by hl11 at Feb 29, 2016 09:50 AM |
Exams watchdog Ofqual is considering a major grading shake-up that would cut the proportion of pupils achieving a crucial "pass" grade in GCSE English by more than a quarter.

This is how the TES opened an article on 12 February 2016 titled 'Grading shake-up could lead to a 'big drop' in passes: Ofqual's bid to ensure subject parity might be 'devastating' for English GCSE results'.

The article concerned Ofqual's plans to improve the comparability of grades across GCSE and A level subjects - a move which would make it harder to achieve top grades in "easy" subjects. One option would be to give 'hard' subjects more top grades and 'easier' subjects, such as English, lower grades. The proportion of pupils achieving a C grade or above in GCSE English in 2013 would have dropped from 64 er cent to 46 per cent if this model had been in place at the time.

The difficulty of subjects according to Ofqual is shown below

GCSE 'easiest' fiveGCSE 'hardest' five


Fine art


Design & technology:textiles

Design & technology: food technology


Short GCSE information technology




A level 'easiest' fiveA level 'hardest' five

Communication studies

Art & design: photography

Film studies

Art & design: textiles

Media/film/.television studies

Further maths


Critical thinking


General Studies

Difficulty is calculated using the Rasch statistical model which compares results rather than subject content. Subjects in which pupils tend to achieve low grades compared with their grades in other subjects are rated 'hard', and those where pupils tend to achieve comparatively high grades are rated 'easy'.

The Chair of the Association's Secondary Education Committee responded with a letter which was produced, heavily abbreviated, in the TES on 19 February. The full text reads:

I wonder whether the inclusion of General Studies within the select group of the five ‘hardest’ subjects at A-level (Grading shake-up could lead to ‘big drop’ in passes TES 12 February 2016) illustrates the inability of statistical modelling of this kind to take into account contextual factors. General Studies (one of the few A–level subjects that most universities are explicit about not accepting for entrance) is rarely given either the curriculum time or the intense examination-focused teaching from which other subjects benefit; moreover, it is not always the candidate’s own choice of subject but a compulsory part of a sixth-form programme. It is not surprising that pass-rates are low and to classify it as a ‘hard’ subject is surely misleading.

In the opposite way, and rather more importantly, the classification of GCSE English as an ‘easy’ subject is also dangerously wide of the mark. More so than any other subject, English has been the focus of sustained efforts over almost 30 years to improve standards. SATs, the literacy hour, the Key Stage 3 Strategy, well-funded literacy intervention schemes and, not least, the use of GCSE English as a crucial school accountability measure, to name but a few, have all had their effect. Schools have gone to remarkable lengths to improve attainment at GCSE English. These have ranged from an intense focus on pupils performing at the C/D borderline, to policies of repeated entries until candidates eventually pass, to blanket entries of whole year groups for the additional iGCSE Engish qualification. While much of this could hardly be described as enlightened educational practice, there can surely be little doubt that the result has been a shared understanding among teachers and pupils that nothing at GCSE matters quite like success at English.

In the circumstances, what would be surprising would be if GCSE English pass-rates were not higher than for other comparable subjects. Simply to classify English as an ‘easy’ subject and to lop percentage points off the A-C pass rate would be a serious injustice to the thousands of pupils every year for whom a pass at GCSE English is a crucial stepping-stone to future attainment.

Yours sincerely

Rob Penman

Chair, Secondary Education Committee

The English Association

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