Review – AQA AS English Literature Exam, 23rd May, 2011

So, there we have it. Another year’s summer examination over. What did you think of the exam this year?

I’m so-so on it. I think it’s hard to deny that question 1a was excellent; a letter from Lt. Colonel Rowland Fielding to his wife expressing his affection for his trench comrades, and alienation from the folks at home. If you couldn’t answer this question and link it to your wider reading, you really had no right to be in the examination at all.

Question 1b, however, was much more tricky and debatable as a test offering.

If you studied the Stallworthy anthology, you were offered a two choices. The first question asked candidates, ‘How far would you agree that the poems by women in this selection present significantly different views from those written by men?’. This is a nice but problematic question, given that there are only two poems written by women in the entire selection of sixty-eight poems. If a candidate doesn’t know at least one of these poems, he or she is, to put it frankly, stuffed. If they do, the world is their oyster. It’s a massive shame, I think, that the examiners decided to examine a fundamental question about gendered perspectives on the war through what are undoubtedly peripheral poems in the selection. Better to test on Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ and allow the better candidates to reach out to ‘Subalterns’ and ‘Rouen’.

The second option in Question 1b was based on Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, asking students to contrast attitudes in the poem to those elsewhere in the selection. Now, in terms of commenting on form, structure and language, this is great selection. The eulogising of Gregory’s death, along Yeats’ attribution to Gregory a higher impulse than patriotism, makes this a good poem to compare to other poems that indulge in either. Yeats’ later ‘Reprisals’ can be referenced and contrasted. Moreover, in his editorial choices, Yeats also links directly to Owen and the whole question of the viability of war poetry. On the surface of things, this seems a cracking selection.

Yet I think there is a problem with this question too. Our group spent just under two weeks studying Yeats and the five poems in the selection; more than enough time, you might think, to get to grip with his poems. Yet the profoundly important Irish context makes these poems difficult and daunting for students already getting to grips with the massive historical challenge that is the European theatre of the First World War.

Difficult is fine, of course. Accessible is another. The problem with question 1b in this exam, I think, is its accessibility to A-level students studying First World War poetry through the Stallworthy anthology. When viewed in combination, the questions selected should have allowed all students to display their knowledge, at the high and low ends. And when viewed in combination, I think it is hard to argue that that Question 1b allowed students to do this.

Was this was a fair examination, then? I’m not sure. In some ways I think that this was a good exam that was unnecessarily obscure in at least one of its questions for section 1b. Personally I’m tired of the needless obscurity that examiners seem to habitually indulge in: but I’m not sure that this is a prime example of this habit since this exam began three years ago.

I’m going to throw this question out to others– to you, the students who sat it.


7 thoughts on “Review – AQA AS English Literature Exam, 23rd May, 2011”

  1. I personally think the exam did not go too well. Many students believed that the first section was great whereas I think the text did not have enough to pull out. There were no techniques either and all the writer was focusing on was trench warfare. which perhaps some people prefer too. For section B I thought the question about women was quiet good. Only pity was that there were only 2 poems by women in the whole selection. But luckily I was still able to answer the question. It would have been impossible for me to do the question on Yeats as I didn’t have any background of the poem in my head. Also all the Yeats poems gave me headache and I did not revise them. I think the exam board has been extremely mean to put that question in as there is really not much to compare the poem with. To get high marks we also had to make intense comparisons, I believe that this was not possible with this poem.

    1. Yours is an interesting point about section 1a, Monika. When I looked over the exam a second time recently– after reading your post– I could begin to see your criticism of the appropriateness of the text for interrogating form, structure and language. Interestingly, a teacher from another school with whom I talked at a London meeting raised the same complaint.

  2. I expected either Irish or women, but not both on one paper. Women’s writing is clearly peripheral to Stallworthy’s selection, and Irish writing only marginally better represented. My students struggled with the Irish context altogether, and surely Stallworthy’s choice of the two poems by women are not really the only two decent women’s poems of the war.

    I am considering abandoning the Stallworthy, despite the work I’ve done on it. We have struggled to find it engaging. All too often it reads like the superiority complex of a male academic.

    In fact, I’m fed up with the whole spec, and would happily go to another board. One topic for a whole year?! We teach a single block of time in adult ed, so there is no let up – three hours of one topic. Give me the old spec back – it wasn’t broken. In fact 0660 was OK too.

    1. I must say that I still like Stallworthy’s collection, but your point as to its usefulness as a source text does open up a wider question as to the structure of the AQA course.

      Selecting the World War 1 literature option for AS does mean that around a quarter of the examined material for A-level is almost wholly written by men. This is a fact that the examiners seemed to be pussyfooting around when they set their question 1b this year. It seems to me that the examiners either need to accept the masculine bias of their selection and test on what they have given the students; or, if they want to address the gender bias, either change the anthology– or allow students to approach the question of male and female voices in a more reasonable manner.

  3. My daughter sat the exam and had difficulties answering this. She got good marks for the first paper, and a poor result in the second paper, resulting in an ‘ungraded’. Can anyone advise how to appeal? Thanks. Andy B

    1. Deciding on whether to appeal depends on the reason for the ‘U’.

      If it’s a simple matter of your daughter not knowing how to answer the question in an exam– no matter how difficult or accessible the question may or may not be– there are no grounds for appeal. If she was unprepared for the question, then she and her teachers need to work together to discover exactly why that is.

      If however you suspect that the paper has been incorrectly marked, you need to approach your daughter’s school, specifically her English teachers, to ask them to appeal the result. AQA do not answer queries by parents or students directly.

      There’s more information about appeals on the AQA website:

  4. Horrible paper. I got a C, I felt that I couldn’t answer the women question as there were only two female poets in the selection and ‘…an Irish airman’ was a horrible poem to get a question on. Hopefully January goes a lot better.

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