Hints and tips - 6 minute read
Isobel Woodger, OCR English Subject Advisor
In this blog I’m going to be talking about a project I have been working on to support you in expanding and diversifying the texts studied for the non-exam assessment (NEA). This will hopefully form just one of the projects we undertake to make our specification more diverse, anti-racist and inclusive.
When thinking about where in the specification offers the most flexibility and room for change, Component 3: Literature post-1900 is the obvious choice. We deliberately chose our NEA component to focus on 20th and 21st century literature to enable centres to respond to changes in cohort, in focus, and in teacher interest.
Having joined OCR in September 2019, one of the things I became focused on was the way in which, despite this flexibility, teachers don’t necessarily feel empowered to move beyond traditional, sometimes stereotypical, choices. As I wrote in November 2019 about the current top 10 texts for each genre, “It’s my hope that over time, this list will become even more representative.”
These lists drew from the previous three years of NEA submissions from centres and they reveal some interesting patterns:
This information has really driven my conversations with teachers and centres since. Considering current public questions about the role of education in dismantling systemic racism, it’s only reinforced the importance of this work.
While we look toward what changes we could make in our examined texts, which undergo greater regulatory scrutiny and process, one place we can offer immediate support and change is in the NEA.
In our A Level Literature networks in March 2020 a week or so before lockdown, I shared the information above and asked the following questions of the teachers who attended. I wanted to know what drove and influenced choices made by students, teachers, and departments.
How much choice do students have at your centre? Is choice at text or task level or both?
How could choice be devolved more to students?
How can students be directed towards more diverse texts?
What could OCR be doing to support widening texts taught within departments?
In response to the first two questions, I heard from a lot of centres where control over text choice was in the hands of the department, rather than their students. Understandably, many centres shared their anxiety about devolving text choice to students or fear that in not teaching NEA texts to a class, students will not achieve as highly. There are also concerns about the administrative burden that comes in assessing those students’ work.
This contrasted with the experience of some of our other centres, some with quite large cohorts, where the choice of at least one text is devolved to students. We encourage all centres to administer the NEA in the way best student to their context and cohort while trying to emphasise the importance of student independence in this component. We also hope that my role in approving text combinations and task titles goes some way to easing anxiety about appropriateness of text.
In response to the latter two questions, the most common response from teachers during this discussion was feeling that they didn’t have the time to seek out new texts and didn’t know where or how to begin if they did have the time. It became clear that this is something the subject team can help with.
Listening to what teachers were asking for, we will now be offering twice-yearly ‘Expanding your NEA library’ bulletins, highlighting contemporary texts from a truly diverse range of authors. Here is our first update. This can be found on our webpage, under Assessment, in the NEA section.
In our bumper first edition, I’ve focused on 30 texts (10 for each genre) by black authors from around the world. Although our specification does enable students to study some excellent novels by black authors, we’re conscious that there’s more to be done. I’ve provided a short summary of each text and pulled out six key themes that could help you determine possible companion texts.
Having only left the classroom last year, in a department where I’d established free student choice for the NEA, I wanted to share some of the texts we recommended to students and texts they brought to us.
This list was a joy to put together. I’ve tried to highlight some of the texts I’ve really enjoyed introducing to students in the past (one student’s work on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen ended up playing a key part in her university interview), along with very recent reads (Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half having been my most recent!)
Future editions will feature 15 texts in total, always covering drama, poetry and prose evenly. We will focus on highlighting contemporary writing and forgotten classics, exploring connections between our recommendations and the modern canon. This resource will be coming out twice a year, hopefully every October and June moving forward.
We’re hoping that this will start some conversations with your students and colleagues about which texts are chosen for study during the NEA. We are also looking at other areas of the specification as part of a wider project to consider where we can offer change and support but please rest assured that any significant changes to our specifications will involve a broad process of including voices from teachers, Higher Education representatives, and subject associations.
We’d love to get your thoughts and recommendations so, to get you thinking, what texts would you like to see us highlight in the future?
If you have any questions you can submit your comments below or email us at OCRenglish@ocr.org.uk. You can also sign up to receive email updates or follow us on Twitter at @OCR_English.
Isobel joined OCR as a member of the English subject team, with particular responsibility for the A Level English qualification suite. She previously worked as a classroom teacher in a co-educational state secondary school, with three years as second-in-charge in English with responsibility for Key Stage 5. In addition to teaching all age groups from Key Stage 3 to 5, Isobel worked with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education as a mentor to PGCE trainees. Prior to this, she studied for an MA in Film, Television and Screen Media with Birkbeck College, University of London while working as a learning support assistant at a large state comprehensive school.