It seems weird in a way that it was 10 years ago that I sat my first GCSE. I can't say I really revised for it (or the rest of the ones I took). I'm allegedly of above average intelligence (although sometimes my personal life REALLY makes me doubt that) but even I can see that GCSE papers now are easier than the ones I sat 10 years ago. I remember being told how important the results were, the fact that we would need them to get a job or to get into further education. My particular 6th Form apparently required B grades in a subject to take someone on for their A Level course (only it was then changed to AS and A2, but the same rule applied) with a required 5 Bs total to gain entry. I was therefore somewhat shocked when they seemed to renege on that and allow people with D grades into the 6th Form. No, I kid you not. I'm assuming they were admitted on a case by case basis so if someone got something like A, A, A*, B, D they'd accept... Being 10 years ago my memory is somewhat hazy now but I do recall vaguely that these people with D grades were generally not that bright and had been in the intermediate classes rather than the higher ones.
I was told by my Maths teacher that I wouldn't get above a C. I only submitted one piece of Maths coursework instead of the normal of 2 (because I couldn't be arsed), sat the higher tier paper and walked away with an A. In a subject that I am completely crap at. English was a case of "read stuff and then write something semi-intelligent about it". As I've always read and written a lot, this caused me no great hardship. I found languages easy to pick up and so again, this caused me no great issues. I do remember there being an issue with Physics as our teacher was diagnosed with cancer about half way through Year 10 and we were left in the hands on stand in teachers, very few of whom taught science subjects. We were generally left with textbooks and told to do exercises. I heard that everyone in my class got a D on their Physics coursework. We still had a substantial amount of A*s and As in Science (back then we did the Suffolk Science Double Award instead of individual grades in Chem, Bio and Phys). I honestly can't say that any of the GCSE courses were that taxing. A lot of people did revise tons and got worse results than myself and I know I am somewhat of an anomaly. One of those people who you really hate because they slack off, put in no work and get good grades (don't worry, AS Levels got their revenge on me), but the point is that I also recall a lot of the people I sat exams with got out of the exam room and said "Bloody hell, that was much easier than I expected".
I just went and had a gander at the AQA site (the exam board for my English GCSEs) and looked at the new style anthology with it's millions of extra new features that my generation never had. Back in my day we had a softback A4 book of about 60 pages or so which would invariably end up dog-eared, torn and mostly illegible by the end of the 2 year course. We were also allowed to take this into the exam, however our notes were meant to be very limited. I don't know how exactly this was regulated, I'm assuming had anyone had anything out of place they would have had it replaced with a spare from the front. In any case, it was quite simply a book or poems which we would occasionally sit in class and discuss, much to the boredom of most people. It certainly made me want to stab Carol Ann Duffy. Having said that, I was the sort of person who wanted to respond to questions like "Why do you think the author is trying to get us to sympathise with the subject of this poem?" with "The bloody author is still alive so I suggest you ask them yourself". Don't get me wrong, I LIKE poetry, I think poetry is very pretty. I can understand interpreting works by those who are no longer alive if they have never stated what their work is about. I see very little point in asking questions about the work of an author who is still alive. Technically a piece of text (or art in other mediums) can be interpreted in more than one way. If no definition has already been given, then sure, allow people to freely interpret. If there is already a "correct" answer and you're trying to see how many people can spot it, I think that's actually quite unfair. This coming from the person who got an A* in English Lit (and no, I didn't actually tell the examiners to bugger off and stop asking me pointless questions on my paper).
You see, the joyous thing about GCSEs is that the most obvious answer is generally the correct one. THAT is how you get away with questions about seemingly obscure interpretations. The materials that they get you to study have glaringly obvious themes and topics. This is probably part of the reason I got told that one of my essays was degree standard when all I did was pick a very vague and obscure theme from both Wuthering Heights and 1984. I don't believe my work was that advanced, more that the teachers were shocked that someone could think that much outside the box rather than going for something blindingly obvious. A lot of people (as my class was mostly female) picked two love stories. The idea behind the "wider reading" component of our course was to get us to read one pre and one post 20th century book, then write a comparative essay on some aspect of the books. I didn't really want to do something boring that would end in the examiner having a "WELL DUH!" moment. Having just had a little look on teh interwebz, I've found the following (which I have added a couple of annotations to):
What texts go well together?
It is possible to find some works of literature with very close connections, but it is usually quite sensible to find works that have a common theme or general subject. One very good idea is to write about texts in which relationships are important (/headdesk). Not surprisingly, this will allow you to write about very many novels, plays and poems, as this subject is a favourite of many writers.
What texts should you study?
The possible combinations are infinite. What you study will reflect how far your teacher wants to prepare and direct you, and how far you are able to work independently. Some teachers want to make sure that you approach the subject in a very structured way, while others are more ready to let different pupils take different approaches. Examiners are comfortable with both - they are very ready to give more credit for work which is obviously done entirely by the student. (Well that explains a lot...) They are less comfortable with schools where all the students write the same things in the same order. And you will find a range of tutorials on this site for texts which you may wish to combine.
Now, I wasn't actually presented with anything like that. I remember we had a brief which said something along the lines of what we were and weren't allowed to use. It didn't really give any guidelines. I recall quite a lot of people asking for help in classes with this essay. I er... didn't. As I recall when I studied my GCSES, my high school had decided to close the library in preparation for development of the new ICT block. The central library in the city was still a smoking shell after a fire. Internet back in 2001 was... well, not amazing and not everyone had it. I knew that my personal use of it back then certainly wasn't studying and even so, there were very few resources online. All I remember doing was thinking about books I had read and what was the most obscure comparison that I could do. After about 5 minutes of thought, I came up with the 1984/Wuthering Heights combo and went with it. After sitting down and reading the bloody books again. If you were lucky, you could POSSIBLY find a copy of York's notes for a book to help you work out what was going on. I didn't have the time/money to try and track them down personally but I know a few people who did.
Back to my initial point: kids these days (and of the past 5 years or so) have had a lot more media to hand when it comes to revision. The epitome of help for us was finding a revision guide book. Nothing more is being asked of them than what was being asked of the people who sat exams alongside me 10 years ago. The National Curriculum has been restructured for many subjects to make them easier (not being rude but probably because of the amount of non-native children who have come into England and can't perform as well). Therefore I suffered somewhat of a minor heart attack when a friend of mine posted a link to an article with the following quote:
Only some 54 per cent of the country’s children manage to get 5 A*-C grades, including just English and maths.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
As you may know, I did a course this summer with a lot of people who were a good 5 years or so younger than myself. Not to be rude but the majority of the people were below my standard. Sounds petty but looking over their work I'd see a lot of errors that I wanted to correct with red marker pen. Everyone managed to pass a Level 2 qualification in Literacy (and the Numeracy paper too). This qualification is the equivalent of a GCSE C grade.
In my personal opinion, the problem isn't with the schools so much. It's with the parents for not taking more of an interest in what their kids are doing. I remember reading Wicked! by Jilly Cooper and thinking how lovely it was that one of the parents sat a GCSE along with his son. I tried making the point to someone that as they suffer from learning difficulties and have free time on their hands, their pregnancy would be an ideal time to do some literacy courses so they can help their kid before it starts school so they get a decent start. This got met with general apathy.
But you see, because parents are being less involved/interested, the kids themselves lose hope. They see mummy sitting on the dole doing nothing and what have they got to aspire to? Sure, there are exceptions to this who see that picture and think "I want better from life", who will be self-motivated and achieve. There are those who have the self-motivation and won't achieve due to various reasons (lack of ability, lack of support, being held back by said parents). You get so many people who are sat on their arses on benefits with no motivation to achieve, thinking that life for them is going to be being discovered on the X Factor or getting famous through Big Brother, therefore they don't actually have to work for any qualifications. They don't realise that for most people, that will never happen. They don't care because they know that they will be able to live off the state. In fact, many would prefer that because it guarantees them housing. Sure, this country is quite messed up at the moment. But I'd rather be claiming JSA with some decent qualifications than none at all. Long term futures seem to be things that a lot of people don't think about.
Of course, I can't say for definite what standards of teaching are like these days but after looking at the league tables I can see this much: my old high school had a 39% A*-C pass rate in 2001. In 2009 it was up to 64%.
Ugh, enough education related ranting for one evening. It disgusts me too much to think about it now.