It's the last of these that will be prompting most talk around the country right now, since the annual un-necessary tizz-fest about which poets will be 'on' tomorrow afternoon will be stirred up still further by Heaney's inclusion - does this mean that he won't be on the literature paper? Since he died recently, does this mean that they'll have him on both papers? Let's hope our candidates are not distracted by this.
The comprehension questions were well-written throughout, though the third one on Richard Ford (asking about 'engaging narrative, lyrical beauty and concrete realism') might intimidate some candidates. Text 2 was a good choice, with both Warner and Lanchester looking at non-literary influences (pop music and video games). Text 3 had Heaney writing at his most powerful and in some ways demanding (an inherited possession becomes 'a point of entry into a common emotional ground of memory and belonging').
The three B questions were quite wordy and defined, and it seems the examiners are directing candidates more fully; the questions certainly needed careful reading, so that elements were not missed (for instance, the Canada B question had at least 4 elements that needed attention). The B question for Text 2 was more predictable and perhaps a bit dull (but candidates won't be concerned about that). The B question following the Heaney text was more imaginative.
The main task of course is the Composition, worth 25% of all marks across the two papers. There were attractive personal essay questions on 'interesting or unusual people and the impact they made on you' (their English teachers?), a standard dull question on 'current issues' and a good one on the influence of the weather. Over recent years short story questions have become more and more defined, as they were here - a ghostly presence in one story, a Science Fiction genre story in question 7. It is certainly difficult to pre-package a short story these days (and it remains difficult to write a good one under such strict time conditions).
As usual, the Ordinary Level paper will have frightened no-one. It's stretching things to suggest that one of the men of the moment, Roy Keane, was on the paper due to his news currency; Malala Yousafazi featured in Text 2 (as she did on a recent commercial company's Higher Level paper, so anyone who did that and then dropped down for the real exam will be distinctly pleased); Patrick deWitt's 2011 Booker Prize-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers was an interesting third choice (the tone might have tested some Ordinary Level candidates). The B questions were all straightforward.
Finally, the Ordinary Level composition questions provided plenty of opportunities (as in the Higher Level paper, the short stories were again clearly defined - on overcoming difficulties, on undergoing a lucky or unlucky experience nad on 'an apparently charming character revealing a less attractive side to his/her character').
Certainly the language papers this year (and for the last couple of years too) are less bland and more challenging than in the early years of this 'new' course.