This weekend we’ve seen yet more covert meddling in education from politicians. You’d think we would be used to this by now!
The examination board OCR announced that they will be dropping American books and plays from their GCSE English Literature syllabus in accordance with the wishes of the Secretary of State, Michael Gove. There’s an expectation that the other examination boards will follow suit.
Read these extracts for more detail.
Currently the English Literature syllabus states that post-1900 literature studied must be British, but that pre-1900s can be from other countries as long as it was originally written in English.
Students should study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include:
- at least one play by Shakespeare
- at least one 19th century novel
- a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry
- fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards
All works should have been originally written in English.
The response from the Department for Education to critics of the guidelines is priceless. Thank goodness they haven’t suggested prioritising certain methods of teaching children how to read……. Oh, wait a minute . . .
“It [the content for GCSE as suggested by DfE] doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.
“That is only the minimum pupils will be expected to learn. It is now up to exam boards to design new GCSEs, which must then be accredited by the independent exams regulator Ofqual.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s be clear. This is censorship by any other name.
The government is very clear about the words it uses, which is why those of us in the PSHE education world continue to campaign for the word “must” instead of “should” in relation to student entitlement to quality PSHE.
There’s only so much time available for the teaching of English Literature, and if you must teach a post 1914 fiction or drama that is written “from the British Isles”, then that would essentially rule out the study of the sort of classics that have now been eradicated from the curriculum offering from OCR. For when we last looked “To Kill a Mocking Bird” was published in 1960 – thereby ruling itself out of consideration.
This move is outrageous on many counts – so outrageous that Twitter was actually trending #tokillamockingbird on Sunday.
Firstly, there are some classic books that have been written in the United States and other English speaking countries that warrant study by 16 year olds. This doesn’t merely apply to the classics penned by Harper Lee and John Steinbeck. Contemporary works from the likes of John Green and Mitch Albom are amongst the most moving and eloquent books written, and are not dumbed down in their literary technique. What’s more, our young people enjoy them because they resonate with them and tackle issues relating to real life.
Secondly, no-one should essentially direct what a young person reads in the course of their studies (or their personal time). With the overt focus on summative assessment, these young people are already prevented from “free choice reading” due to the pressure of the examination system. How many times do we hear children say they are too busy to read great books because they are working on their GCSE or A-Level syllabus? It’s preposterous.
Thirdly, politicians should butt out. Politicians, and especially the current Secretary of State for Education, are persistently trying to impose their own pet projects on an entire generation of children and young people.
This is indoctrination.
Yes, Gove loves Dryden and Byron. Fine, but that doesn’t mean that the entire nation has to follow his preferences and tastes, heaven forbid. He also likes Wham and Spandau Ballet. Thank goodness his personal preferences aren’t influencing the music curriculum………..yet.
We could continue. Why, for instance, are we restricted to the study of books originally written in English? Translators are incredibly careful and skilful, and works from places like France, China, India, Spain and so on provide as much literary brilliance as those penned in English. (Whilst we’re on this subject, what about Gove’s famous King James I bible given to every school? Wasn’t that a translation?)
We can also kiss goodbye to any idea that contemporary lyricists and poets such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen ought to be considered for study. There’s nothing muted or “dumbed down” about their use of English, and yet being from the other side of the Atlantic, they are deemed unfit for consumption. Mad!
Reading is so important, and so personal. We accept that there has to be some consistency with regard to examinations but it goes back to this whole argument about what we are actually trying to achieve. Do we want our young people to love learning and reading or do we want them to be able to regurgitate texts and facts? We are too focused on content rather than the skills that young people are learning through reading and analysing a text.
Let’s look at the learning outcomes for the GCSE English Literature syllabus. Is the indoctrination and censorship we see here going to achieve these aims? We don’t think so.
GCSE specifications in English literature should enable students to:
read a wide range of classic literature fluently and with good understanding, and make connections across their reading
read in depth, critically and evaluatively, so that they are able to discuss and explain their understanding and ideas
develop the habit of reading widely and often
appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage
write accurately, effectively and analytically about their reading, using Standard English
acquire and use a wide vocabulary, including the grammatical terminology and
other literary and linguistic terms they need to criticise and analyse what they read.
There are some superb, classic books written in Britain, in English. However, there are other books. We don’t have a particular bias towards “Of Mice and Men”. In fact we would agree that the statistic of 90% of students studying that book for GCSE is as ridiculous as the ban on it – but this says more about the lack of original thought and creativity of the examination boards than any problem with the book itself. With the range of literature available, we shouldn’t have one book having such prominence in our children’s lives – however brilliant and inspiring it is.
Our children deserve more, and it’s up to us to ensure that this level of indoctrination and censorship is stopped now.
One final thought. If we feel passionately about these issues of interference, indoctrination and censorship, then we really ought to shout loudly. In November last year, the government issued a consultation on the study of English and Mathematics at Key Stage Four. Did you know about it? Did we? No.
61 people responded.
Are there really only 61 people interested in this? A further 686 responded to the wider curriculum consultation.
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254513/GCSE_consultation_-_government_s_response.pdf (see page 7 for English Literature review, noting that there is still the insistence about naming “Romantic poetry” as a must.)
We need greater autonomy and greater democracy in education – and much greater respect for the opinions of dedicated, long-serving professionals. If we are going to prevent politicians from interfering, we must use the opportunities that are legally offered, such as these consultations, more effectively.