GCSE English Literature 2021: Facing Some Tough Choices

What to remove from GCSE english Literature 2021...

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last academic year was the weirdest any of us have ever experienced. Remote lessons, changes to syllabi, uncertainty over results…teachers and students have faced a few challenges over recent months. And all against the backdrop of a worldwide plague. Small wonder that some of us were reaching for the gin over the summer holidays. But now we’re back to what is optimistically called the New Normal, we English teachers have a fresh choice to face: what to cull from GCSE English Literature 2021.

GCSE English Literature 2021 Changes

At the beginning of August, Ofqual announced that it would be allowing exam boards to drop one element from GCSE English Literature 2021. This decision was largely welcomed by teachers; after all, it’s usually a struggle to fit Shakespeare, poetry, a 19th century novel and a contemporary text into two years of lessons that also have to include teaching for GCSE English Language. Add in the extra challenge of getting students to read the texts remotely, and something has to give. So the news that the GCSE English syllabus 2021 would lose a unit was welcome. But now, of course, the dilemma is deciding what to drop. And that throws up a whole new set of questions…


For many teachers, the chance to ditch poetry is roughly the equivalent of winning several millions on the lottery. Sure, Wordsworth’s The Prelude is beautiful and a wonderful example of Romantic poetry, but trying to convince a grumpy class of Year Elevens that you can have a love affair with nature rather than each other, is a hard sell at the best of times. Add in the fact that they have to study fifteen poems but only get asked questions on two of them (depending, of course, on your board), and the prospect of binning poetry becomes even more inviting.

The 19th Century Novel

Yes, Dickens was a great author whose characterisation is both witty and moving. Yes, Jane Eyre is a wonderful insight into the female psyche. Yes, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a prescient novella about mental health. But they can all be hard work with a class of world-weary teenagers whose idea of entertainment is Tom Holland scaling a hundred-foot wall at 24 frames per second. From a practical point of view, many of the 19th century novels are long reads and take up weeks of lessons, so culling them from the GCSE English syllabus 2021 buys you a lot of time.

Modern Plays and Prose

Which bright spark decided that Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – a play about A-level students preparing for Oxbridge – would make a good GCSE text? Someone, somewhere, is having a good laugh about that. And Dennis Kelly’s DNA might be a brilliant, edgy play, but it certainly makes you look at your Year Tens in a different light. It’s not just the plays that have their problems, either – modern prose can also be a minefield. Golding’s Lord of the Flies is about as bleak as it gets, and Orwell’s Animal Farm might be politically on-point but everyone knows Year Tens are not impressed by talking pigs. The prospect of spending a year avoiding the pitfalls of modern prose or plays can be very appealing.

The Future of GCSE English Literature 2021

So, which element of GCSE English Literature 2021 is getting the cut in your classroom? Despite the flippancy of these last few lines, I don’t know an English teacher who doesn’t acknowledge that this is hard choice to make. Because, for all our moaning about them, these works are all amazing. They open doors to worlds that teenagers might otherwise never visit. They broaden horizons and minds. They give us a glimpse of beauty and truth through the prism of their pages. To take one of them away is to close a door that might never be reopened. And that is a hard decision to make.

Read our previous post on the exam fiasco of 2020 here.

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