Supporting English-related teaching and learning at all levels

Cultural Capital in GCSE English Literature: notes from the AQA English Subject Associations Event, 7th March 2019 – Nikki Copitch

This event was hosted by the AQA English Curriculum team for representatives from the community of English Subject Associations, aiming to “develop relationships with the best interests of English education at the core of what [AQA] do”.
The first session was an overview of AQA specifications for GCSE Language and Literature qualifications to inform colleagues from organisations for whom secondary education is not one of their primary foci. While engaging, it was the second session which I believe was of most note for NAAE members, “Cultural Capital and implications for GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature” delivered by Emma Granton, Lead English Expert for AQA, who teaches in the North East in a mixed 11-16 comprehensive school.
Adapted from one of the AQA English hub schools network meetings, Emma explored the changes which have taken place in the way cultural heritage is examined in GCSE English Literature now compared to in previous incarnations. This has moved from what could be a tokenistic paragraph showing that students knew something about the time in which the text was written to a more sophisticated understanding of the universal ideas being explored and the ways in which they are relevant to us now. An example of this ‘universality’ is the difference when studying and responding to Macbeth- the difference in complexity of response between a basic and often irrelevant reference to the importance of kings in Shakespeare’s time versus an understanding of the role of the hero both then and now.
This requirement for a more complete and relevant understanding of the context of texts may feel more congruent with the effective study of English Literature; however, it also demands a level of cultural experience and a literary background that many of our learners don’t possess, perhaps particularly those from socially deprived backgrounds. Without this level of ‘cultural capital’, their access to the English Literature curriculum will be more limited than their peers who are able to understand the allusions in texts as well as their wider significance. From a personal perspective, I have also noticed that many trainee teachers who come through non-traditional routes into ITE (perhaps access courses and narrow, modular degrees) also lack the cultural capital to support their students in fully understanding the cultural and literary context of the texts they teach.
Drawing on the need to address learners’ breadth of knowledge, AQA set about considering how Amanda Speilman’s notion of “intelligent backward planning” to inform Key Stage 3 English could support learners while also supporting English teachers in avoiding the narrow diet of a ‘5 year GCSE’ programme. The principle is essentially simple: consider the cultural understanding students will require at GCSE and design a Key Stage 3 course which provides this in a rich manner, with ‘deep learning’ to enable application of the concepts at Key Stage 4. This curriculum will include written, spoken and moving texts, drama, creative writing, poetry, etc to teach the skills associated with the AOs but not using the AOs to assess until the appropriate time in Key Stage 4.
The full powerpoint and case study are available on the AQA website:
Although the messages and ideas are, to some extent, common sense, it was heartening to hear the exam board supporting teachers in their attempts to retain the integrity and breadth of Key Stage 3 in the face of pressure to narrow the curriculum to focus solely on the requirements of a limited examination rather than the lifelong appreciation of literature which we hope to achieve.
If you are interested in this, you may also be interested in James Durran’s writing on the subject which can be found at

The following comments were added by the NAAE Committee. If you would like to add a comment on this, or any other material on the website, please email

Jane Davies, Senior Adviser: Cultural capital and vocabulary seem to have appeared in isolation in the draft Ofsted framework and this raises concerns about how this might be interpreted by schools in their planning and teaching. In terms of messages about backwards planning from KS4, the messages received and shared from AQA have been around an engaging, creative, broad and rich KS3, building on KS2 and ensuring learners have access to and experience of the range of reading, writing, speaking and listening texts and skills needed for KS4. It’s important not to equate KS4 with GCSE and assess (or plan!) using the AOs before KS4 and treat KS3 as ‘GCSE-lite’. I’m also increasingly concerned about the way in which there seems to be a division opening up on Twitter between those who advocate a knowledge based curriculum and those who advocate one that is skills based. English should always be a mixture of the two.

Richard Long, English Lead Practitioner: What you have written certainly concurs with my experience and understanding of AQA’s messages from my role as Assistant Principal Examiner for English Literature Paper 2.

The issue for me (and still is when I talk to a lot of teachers) is teachers’ understanding of what ‘context’ means. For years I taught this largely associated with the historical time in which the text was written or with regards the significance of the writer’s background. But my learning from AQA since this new spec started has been that context is of course much broader than that. The messages in the Principal Examiner’s report have been very influential for developing thinking on this and I delivered some feedback meetings for AQA in the Autumn on this very issue.

Here are some of the statements from the PPT we were given and the Reports:

“There has been much less evidence of random historical information being used to signal an awareness that the text was written at a specific point in time, but which did not materially add to an understanding or appreciation of the text’s ideas and meanings.”

“The most successful approaches incorporated AO3 in their responses rather than ‘bolting’ context
on to the end of their responses, and focused on linking their contextual points back to the question throughout their response.”

“Examiners are looking for evidence that students understand the text in relation to the question, so again, it is about exploring why the writer has presented their ideas in this particular way: why the characters behave in the way they do, why the scene is set in this particular place, why this theme is significant in the text. There are myriad interpretations that students can offer to demonstrate their own engagement with the text, these may relate to historical factors, eg the structure of society in Shakespearean England, but equally they can be seen through a different prism, eg in Romeo and Juliet, the universal urge for teenagers to challenge the attitudes and beliefs of older generations, which is not confined to a specific time.”

“There has been much less evidence of random historical information being used to signal an
awareness that the text was written at a specific point in time, but does not materially add to an understanding or appreciation of the text’s ideas and meanings. Similarly, formulaic constructions along the lines of ‘An Elizabethan audience would think…. a modern audience would be…’ seldom help the student to demonstrate any real insight into the text, instead they offer generalisations rather than the student’s own ideas about the text.”

“The word ‘implicit’ in the mark scheme refers the ability to integrate appreciation of ideas/contextual factors into overall understanding of the text. ‘Explicit’ (in Level 1) refers to bolted-on, extraneous context that is not linked to the ideas in the text. Therefore students get no marks for bits of biographical information or historical facts. In Section B, if students are addressing the focus of the question then they are addressing AO3. There is no need and absolutely no value, in attempting to incorporate biographical information about the poet or learned facts about the progeny of the particular poem into their responses. Some students did attempt to access AO3 via bolt-on pieces of information on the writer’s background/beliefs.”

“However, many responses integrated AO1 and AO3 seamlessly, allowing for a much more holistic and less prescriptive response. The most successful of these were the ones who simply answered the question. Where the AO3 emerged from the text, this was very enabling for students. There were some fantastic treatments of how characters, settings, events and plots embody/demonstrate ideas and perspectives, and these were far more successful than those who presented extraneous pieces of historical information not rooted in the text.”

“Another real success was the way some students considered differences between modern and contemporary reception, perhaps most notably with An Inspector Calls. Another purposeful and productive method was to consider themes and universal ideas that come out from the study of the text. Perhaps the most useful way of thinking about context is that it the type of context needs to be
particular to the text being studied.”

As a Subject Leader tasked with the challenge of designing a KS3 curriculum, I’m also concerned about the way the term ‘cultural capital’ and ‘knowledge rich’ are being used and I fully agree with Barbara Bleiman’s view on this in terms of this being more complex than some educationalists are currently making it. It can become an elitist argument too. I’m also concerned about an emphasis on the traditional literary canon for example at the expense of some of the wonderfully diverse literature that is out there. Interestingly, I saw the brochure for an English Mastery Curriculum this week and was quite concerned about some of the message in there which seem to take a certain view of what cultural capital students need. I also have reservations about working backwards from GCSE when the GCSE curriculum in my view is a very narrow version of what English should offer our students and I agree that we certainly shouldn’t be engaging with the AOs at KS3 which has unfortunately led to students preparing for GCSE exams in Y7. I prefer to think about the experience an English curriculum should provide in terms of the EMC’s 4 Processes in their ‘Curriculum Plus’ package