Within the GCSE English Literature set text list, students are required to study poetry, plays and novels. The range of these works varies greatly – not only in terms when these pieces of literature were written, but also in the writing style and genre. Changes to the set text list between 1988-2015 (the period we have analysed) have been brought about by successive governments and their respective introduction of new syllabuses.

Having documented which plays and novels were on the OCR set text list from 1988-2015, we were keen to analyse whether there were any trends in the proportion of modern and heritage texts which appeared on the list.

We also wanted to document the gender and nationality of authors and playwrights and which texts had been in the syllabus for the longest.

This is what we discovered.



Trends in Contemporary / Historical Literature

Key Findings


  • There were more 20th century novels on the set text list between 1988-1997, than there were 19th century novels.


  • Before 1998 the proportion of 19th century novels varied between 20% and 36% of the total set text list.


  • The situation changed in 1998, the year after Labour came to power. With this change of government comes a notable shift in the number of 19th century novels – they jumped to be 58% of the total set text list. This also meant there was a reduction in the number of contemporary fiction options on the list.


  • Disregarding the short story compilations, from 2005-2009, newer more contemporary works of fiction become the most predominant era within the syllabus.


  • After the Conservatives come into power in 2010, more contemporary 20th century novels occupy the set text list.


Longest Featuring Novel

Longest on set text list - novels

Shortest Featuring Novel

shortest time on swet text list - novels

Most Featured Author

Most featured author - novels


Author Gender

The chart above shows that an overwhelming 71.8% of the authors on the GCSE English Literature set text syllabus are are male, while only 28.2% are female. While one might think George Eliot is a male author, it’s actually the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. She adopted a man’s name in order for her work to be taken seriously – as was common in 19th century. Other female authors who have adopted masculine pseudonyms include the Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne (who were known as Currer, Ellis and Acton respectively), while more recently J.K. Rowling used the name Robert Galbraith, albeit for altogether different reasons.

Author Nationalities

British is the most predominant nationality of the set text authors. Most are English although Roald Dahl was born in Wales while Robert Louis Stevenson is Scottish.



Trends in Contemporary / Historical Plays

Key Findings


  • Between 1988-2015 there are a few changes to the kind of plays which are included in the syllabus, and most changes have to do with the inclusion and importance of Shakespeare’s plays.


  • Between 1998 and 2004 all plays studied were written in the 20th century.


  • Crucially this means that no Shakespeare was included in the syllabus between 1998 and 2004.


  • Interestingly, Labour gained power in 1997.


  • Between 2005-2009, half of the plays were written in the 20th century, a quarter in the 19th and a quarter in the 16th (that’s just Shakespeare).


  • When the new Conservative government came to power in 2010, they kept the 25% quota of Shakespeare plays. They also eliminated any play from the 19th century, adding more titles from the 20th.


  • From 2013 students were given the opportunity to study from a wider range of Shakespeare than ever before – they could choose any of four titles including: Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet.


Playwright Gender

An overwhelming 96.7% of the playwrights included in the GCSE syllabus between 1988-2015 are male. While only 3.3% – which in reality is only one playwright were female. Although To Kill a Mockingbird is obviously originally written by Harper Lee, Christopher Sergel dramatised it, and has therefore been included with the male statistics.

Playwright Nationalities

British playwrights are once again well-represented within the set text list. Writers from further afield include Nikolai Gogol who was Russian and of Ukrainian ethnicity, German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and Norway’s Henrik Ibsen.