Thursday, 6 June 2019

GCSE Essay Prize 2019 (Westminster School GCSE Classics Conference)

by Andrew Mylne

The essays submitted for the GCSE Essay Prize 2019 (funded by the Classical Association) were written in response to three of the four titles set by the speakers at the annual GCSE Classics Conference held at Westminster School. It is clear that what the speakers had said at the conference had resonated with the pupils’ own studies of the texts concerned and had prompted them to conduct further research on these texts. The three titles that prompted submissions were: “‘More theology than history.’ Is this a fair criticism of Herodotus account of Croesus?”, “Do Caesar and Tacitus in portraying druids care more about making an impact on their readers than about historical reality?”, and ‘“The great female characters of the Aeneid… refuse, in various ways, their traditional roles of passivity, domesticity, and subordination” (Nugent, 1999). How far is this true of Virgil’s Dido?’. As previously, the essays were assessed anonymously by a panel of judges who put them in a ranking order: the essay which was thereby awarded the most points was adjudged the winner.

There is little opportunity in years 10 & 11 – the target audience of the conference – to undertake any piece of writing more ambitious than practice for the ‘10-mark’ mini-essay questions offered by the GCSE set-text papers. The judges were interested therefore in work that had taken the bold step away from this familiar ground – to embrace wider reading, both of the text itself and of secondary material, and to develop a nuanced argument. The essays titles were set by the academics from universities across the UK who gave the lectures, and, quite properly, they reflect, in sophistication and challenge, the style of essay that a university dept would itself require its students to respond to.

The submissions revealed yet again just how well intelligent, engaged pupils from the pre-6th Form years can and will rise to this sort of challenge. The writing was uniformly mature and articulate, and it was clear that each of the entrants was well aware of how to structure and compose a formal essay. Our congratulations go to all of them for this.

However, the winner was adjudged to be the submission of Katharina Stott, a year 10 pupil from St James Senior Girls’ School. Her essay on the Dido title – ‘“The great female characters of the Aeneid… refuse, in various ways, their traditional roles of passivity, domesticity, and subordination” (Nugent, 1999). How far is this true of Virgil’s Dido?’ was a first-class piece of writing. Katharina really engaged intellectually with the title and wrote with verve and intelligence as she moved clearly and articulately through her argument. We were particularly impressed with the selection of references that she made in support of her points: both their range (she had taken the trouble to investigate Book 1, as well as parts of Book 4 outside of the prescribed lines) and the mature way she marshalled them (for example switching appositely to Latin where the point she wanted to make arose from the Latin word ‘culpa’). It was an essay that reflected well both her intellectual and emotional response to what she had read, and we thought was a remarkable piece for someone in Year 10. It is worth adding that the extracts from Bks 4 & 6 that were this year’s prescribed text will not actually be Katharina’s set-text when she comes to do her GCSE in 2020!  It was good to see that the Conference had done precisely what it is hoped that it would – inspired Katharina to think, research and read more widely around the interest that had been sparked by her contact with the primary text at School.

Many thanks, as ever, to the pupils who submitted their work, and also to their teachers for encouraging them to do so. Thanks also of course to the Classical Association for their generosity in supplying the prize of £100 in book tokens which will be awarded to this year’s winner, Katharina Stott.

Andrew Mylne is Head of Classics at Westminster School