Tag Archives: new GCSE English Literature

After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 5 (and final)

Ok, so the whole bunch of boards have presented their draft offerings for our perusal. I am indebted to @Learningspy, David Didau for his table which puts them neatly into context:
Screen-Shot-2014-05-30-at-12.07.44-1024x528

His blog on this subject is, as ever, insightful and I am pleased to find that he seems to share many of my perspectives. http://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/whos-blame-new-english-literature-gcses/#more-5915

He also offered a rather good Didau list on twitter yesterday:
Bo-FSs_IYAI6jMQ

My prior thoughts can be found here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/tag/new-gcse-english-literature/ PLease feel free to browse these and take the time to look at David’s thoughts as well.

So I am left with mixed feelings.

Michael Gove has made it clear that he wishes to see more breadth in the new format GCSE Literature exam. One of the reasons for his much discussed “culling” of the non-British texts is that around 90% of students study a 75 page novella – Of Mice and Men as one of their texts. He wonders if things have not become a little safe, therefore, and hopes to see a wider curriculum by focusing on works from the British Isles.
Uproar.

Paul Dodd of OCR is reported here putting the blame squarely on Gove: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27563466
and the teaching profession, ever eager to launch assaults on every education secretary since the flood, have leaped in, suggesting that if OMAM and TKAM are removed, then there is no future for the study of literature.

Gove has repudiated the claim that he “banned” the texts based on his own dislike of a text: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10857133/Michael-Gove-Kill-a-Mockingbird-Id-never-dream-of-it.html but still the accusations rain down on him.

But, I wonder, what are the boards doing here? OK so two texts have been lost. In addition it is now compulsory to study texts from pre-20th century writers. Surely this in as opportunity to really provide breadth and new thinking into the exam?

I have stated in my third blog on the subject that I would like to have seen author lists rather than set texts and explained a little in the that post how this might be assessed, without seeming to present to great an obstacle. You might not agree with my author choices, but the idea is quite exciting. Why should I teach animal farm to a high callibre group of students who might get much more, in terms of literary studies from treading 1984 or The Road to Wigan Pier? This was my 19th Century author list:
Author gender origin

Dickens M UK
Hardy M UK
Bronte Fx3 UK
Austen F UK
Eliot F UK
James M USA
Twain M USA
Chopin F USA

My 20/21 Century list might look like this:
Orwell M political commentary/social comment
Huxley M philosophy/social comment
Waugh E M humour/social comment
Greene M humour/ social comment
de Bernieres M not just Corelli!
Barker F WW 1
Attwood F Dystopian visions
Atkinson F exploration of relationships/crime
Blackman F social comment
Ness M Dystopian visions and social comment
Ishiguro M fun with narrators!
Barnes M all encompassing

A good range of gender and period there, though I am still struggling to represent the 50s and 60s and this bothers me. Some have commented that these would all be too hard. I disagree. Any teacher should be able to locate a text from this list to suit all levels. After 1984 and NLMG are on GCSE lists!

But the boards have offered little that is new in any way. Many texts seem to be on the lists either because they have always been, or because there is little appetite to present teachers with anything “new” in case they leave the board which might result in financial ruin…

Consider the repetition: IN the 20th century fiction block, Lord of the flies, NLMG, Anita and Me and Animal Farm are well trodden paths giving ample opportunity to carry on as if nothing had changed. Likewise, in drama, there are the safe choices of An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers which presumably allow centres to make little alteration to their teaching and serve to keep touring theatre afloat as scores of eager students are carted off to watch the endless progress of the two plays to “a theatre near you”. I am pleased by the Edexcel offerings, which seem to slightly more imaginative than any of the others, and simply hope that plenty of schools opt for Journey’s End, even if Inspector is the easier option. am not convinced by the inclusion of Curious Incident: a play version of a fine novel. Why are we working with adaptations? There are so many plays to choose from. David and I both list Hare, Stoppard and Ayckbourn in out various blogs, but the list goes on and on, if we only allow it to do so.

It has also been suggested in a few places that to teach a whole 19th century novel for a closed exam is too hard. Really? Leaving aside the fact that my current year 11s have just sat a closed book exam on Much Ado about Nothing, which was a challenge, but an exciting one, this is just silly and suggests a constant need to run for cover rather than to try to deliver something exciting and extraordinary. Bearing in mind that several boards offer A Christmas Carol in this slot, it is silly to suggest that the exercise is “too hard”. I know there are students who will struggle and maybe they should not be taking Literature in the first place. This sounds harsh, but if the Language exam has breadth enough, there is an argument for this. But we are constantly encouraged to provide depth and challenge. We have high ability students who need to challenge of a longer, more complex text, but also who need the affirmation of their skills to be rewarded with a text which cries out ” you could be great” rather than ” this one is quite easy, you’ll be OK”.

In essence, the boards have played safe. It’s slightly win-win since everyone blames Mr Gove anyway! But this is a missed chance. Teachers know their classes and will choose texts which will challenge and be exciting to teach and to uncover. After all, this is an exam designed to embed an understanding of how Literature works, not to give close-ish knowledge of two or three texts. There are students who might wish to take Lit at A level. We need to prepare them for this rather than to focus all our thoughts and producing enough easy texts to allow 100% take up of the exam. No wonder so many view Lit as “hard” at AS and drop it quickly, when the GCSE staging post seems to be so far removed from the Post-16 version. Let teachers have more choice. Either broaden and excite the lists, or move to author lists. Please.

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After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 4 More of the same -losing heart.

The point of these blogs was intended to be a chance to clarify and simplify the choices involved in opting for a new GCSE board next year. The idea was that greater breadth and renewed enthusiasm would strike me and that I would swoon in front of the vast array of opportunity available to help me inspire year 10…

Sadly, I see no reason to be cheerful. There is a mammoth overhaul of examinations underway across all levels. The much pilloried Michael Gove has indicated that he is tired of a sytem with so little range and breadth of study, so the syllabi have been devised.

On the WJEC website, you find this: Gareth Pierce, WJEC’s Chief Executive, said: “Our GCSE English Literature provides strength and variety in each of the required genres. The 19th century prose works range from Jane Austen to H.G. Wells, whilst our post-1914 prose and drama selection from the British Isles has a rich choice from mid-20th century to the start of the 21st century. The five Shakespearean plays included within our specification provide a choice between tragedy, comedy and history. so far so good. But the exam board with a name that sounds like a curiously underpublicised body responsible for cleaning drains (Seriously: Eduqas?? What does it mean? How much was some marketing guru poaid to come up with it? Why? Was the marking farce of recent memory so bad tha tthe WJEC felt it had to go into hiding and sneak up on unsuspecting exam officers?).

So what have we got? Component 1: Section A (Shakespeare)
Romeo and Juliet
Macbeth
Othello
Much Ado About Nothing
Henry V

Component 1: Section B
WJEC Poetry Anthology (see appendix B for list of poems)

Component 2: Section A (Post 1914 Prose/Drama)
Lord of the Flies (Golding)
*Anita and Me (Syal)
*Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro)
An Inspector Calls (Priestley)
*The History Boys (Bennett)
Blood Brothers (Russell) (not Stanley Thorne edition)

Component 2: Section B (19th Century Prose)
A Christmas Carol (Dickens)
Silas Marner (Eliot)
War of the Worlds (Wells)
Pride and Prejudice (Austen)
Jane Eyre (Brontë)
* Centres are advised that these texts deal with adult themes and / or contain language of an
adult nature. (oo-err)

Woo Hoo for Marner, We Hee for a god set of Shakespeare (though how many centres will opt for Othello, I wonder?) but then, a loud hiss of deflating excitement. It is not that the texts are bad in any way, but it is so dull and unimaginative. Most of the texts are already examined – I applaud WJEC for putting NLMG on the list some time ago -a brave choice which is not reflected here. A wonderful and thought-provoking novel for which I enjoyed preparing a teaching guide and many resources: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/tag/never-let-me-go/ but the others offer no real variety and no clear choice between boards. Apart from Marner, the 19th century list mirrors either of the two boards I have explored here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/tag/new-gcse-english-literature/ and shows so little imagination. It is hard to believe that Carol is there for any reason other than its brevity, when put against other Dickens novels and Jane Eyre is flitting between GCSE and A level with the regularity of rain during a test match. Where does she belong, poor girl? The modern list is equally disappointing – possible to simply dig in and continue to teach Inspector – no harm in that, I believe it to be a brilliant and constantly relevant play, but there is so little about this that is “new”. History Boys is a great play, though I wonder how many year 10 students will buy into the argument between progressive and traditional teaching, let alone the bitter sweet portrayal of homosexuality. Surely better in the VIth form. But the novels are not inspiring either. Flies?? Again. And Anita and me. Now, maybe this is a brilliant piece of literature, but I have never seen the attraction. So, three novels! from the entire 20th and 21st centuries. Are these really the best we could work with?

Why on earth are we bothering with this upheaval?

I am not alone in saying this, as my twitter feed bears out. Neither do I rant at Gove in some knee-jerk ad hominem attack on all things Govine. It seems that the boards are letting us down here. No imagination and no development of breadth. Fewer texts studied than hitherto. Such a shame.

I’m not sure I shall complete part 5. I hope Edexcel raise us from the mire of mediocrity seen here. I’m off to prepare Paradise Lost for A level…

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After Gove; musings on teaching English Literature 3A – update!

Many thanks to @McAllister1 who has pointed me towards the AQA draft mock literature paper 1 and the full list of examined texts, and then to AQA for the release of this page: http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/english/gcse/english-literature-8702/supporting-resources/specimen-papers-and-mark-schemes though I am having trouble getting the link to the Specification to work. The papers are there to browse and apparently the link works on an i-phone!

Shakespeare

Macbeth
Romeo and Juliet
The Tempest
The Merchant of Venice
Much Ado About Nothing
Julius Caesar

Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle The Sign of Four

No wonder they went for the edited highlights! Actually, I like the Shakespeare choices which seem to cover most of the expected common ground and develop the learning after KS3 reading. I would possibly want to see Twelfth Night in there instead of The Tempest, but that’s personal and I believe the extracts are rather brief and therefore guessable once the pre-released act is known.

The novels are just uninspired. Many schools read Carol in KS3. Why is it here? Probably because it is so short and well known. Cop-out. Otherwise, with the exception of the Conan Doyle it is yet more of the same and no flexibility. Still, now we know. However the form of the question is quite fun. I still resent the heads up warning about which area of the text the passage will come from since it will by nature limit questioning in some cases, but the questions are based on appreciation of the whole text and are suitably writer focused, as far as I can see.

The modern list is better:
JB Priestley An Inspector Calls
Willy Russell Blood Brothers
Alan Bennett The History Boys
Dennis Kelly DNA
Simon Stephens The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Shelagh Delaney A Taste of Honey
William Golding Lord of the Flies
AQA Anthology Telling Tales
George Orwell Animal Farm
Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go
Meera Syal Anita and Me
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English

This has some interesting choices: Pigeon English is causing excitement on Twitter at the moment and I will get to know it better. Incidentally, does a text have to be modern to be “relevant”? Don’t reply. Otherwise it is a blend of the well tried – Inspector, Flies, Blood, NLMG, Anita and the newly adopted. Texts like History \boys fluctuate between A level and GCSE, possibly suggesting a lack of appropriateness for either and “new plays” will certainly spark interest. I Know I am old and I know this might not be popular, but shouldn’t a play studied in English Literature be a play first and foremost rather than an adaptation? If it is an adaptation, why this one? Is it a text of such merit to be impossible to ignore in this form? If so, why is it not examined in its original form? I’d like Pullman’s Northern Lights in the RSC performing version, if there is no need to worry about the source material. Otherwise, there are plays by Stoppard, Rattigan, Hare… Once again, will many depart from the well trodden paths? I doubt it. So why are we doing this at all?

My issue remains with the missed opportunity to radically overhaul the nature of the examination and use it a sa springboard for further study as well as a measure of “quality” to appease league tables.

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After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 3 AQA and the waiting game.

This blog post is the third in the series which I hope is proving useful whilst allowing me to get my head round the changes that are about to happen to the teaching of English Literature. The first pair can be found here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/after-gove-musings-on-teaching-english-literature-1/ and here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/after-gove-musings-on-teaching-english-literature-2-ocr-in-draft/
They have received an airing on Twitter and provoked discussion. Since AQA will publish their draft on 19 June, as far as I am aware, I have chosen to look at the “companion guide” available, if you hunt for it, here: http://store.aqa.org.uk/reform-campaigns/AQA-ENGLISH-COMP-GUIDE.PDF

It is hard to avoid another burst of disappointment. In the literature section we find this list:
Our texts include (my bold)
An Inspector Calls
Lord of the Flies
Play script of The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time
Anita and Me
Frankenstein
Macbeth
Romeo and Juliet
Great Expectations
Pigeon English
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

What is going on? According to Michael Gove the rationale behind the changes being placed on this examination is a concern about a lack of breadth in the reading of our students. Much has been made of the removal of 20th Century texts from outside the UK, but there is a more serious issue here.

If we assume that this list is not complete, I wonder what is missing. Is it CHOICE A: more texts designed to reduce challenge and enable the new courses to be taught with minimum disruption? Or is it CHOICE B: A secret stash of genuinely exciting and challenging texts to allow real choice of set text? Well, there is still time…

However, so concerned are AQA to deliver breadth and challenge that they will water down their closed book Shakespeare and 19th Century novel paper by sending out “guidance about a set act and a set chapter or chapters at the beginning of the Spring term before the exam. The extracts on the exam for both the Shakespeare play and the 19th century questions will be taken from the set act or chapter(s)”.

I suppose this depends on what the purpose of the exam is, but for those who imagine that GCSE can be a sensible staging post en route to A level study, this seems daft. It does nothing to improve the preparation for the jump to VIth form study and reinforces the idea that one does not have to read an entire text if it is tricky. The message is that this is”hard” and that many of the students will not be able to cope unless the texts are reduced in this way. One of the ideas most prejudicial to creating resilience and growth mindset is to embed a notion that some areas of study are “too hard”. What a shame.

At least it is a closed book paper. The second paper does not specify this area, so I assume it is an open book paper. This is nothing new when studying an anthology – open but clean being the common watchword – but why should the modern novel also be open? My current Edexcel Certificate students work well from closed text – our choices range from OMAM and TKAM to MAAN and View from the Bridge, but at least the works are well known and studied as complete works of literature. It may just be my personal preference for a closed book examination, but I am interested as to the rationale behind “closed book but told the act or chapters shifting to open book”.

To be fair, this is work in progress and might not be reflected in the final version, but I am concerned. There is alos reference to the “wide range of texts available”. This might signify hope, but the list presented at the top of the article worries me. Again, seemingly arbitrary choices of work from a limited range of authors. Once again I wonder if this reflects an inbuilt fear of the assessment process – gosh, an examiner might have to read a new text! I started to address this in Post 2 by suggesting that markers are allocated schools around March and that schools submit to the board their text choices at the same time. This allows plenty of time for preparation and removes the need to “read the whole list” in the knowledge that some texts are never chosen, to all intents and purposes. Actually, this makes the marking process easier in many ways and does not mean any loss in anonymity between school and marker. If schools were allowed an author list, as I have suggested in both articles, this is easy to quantify as well. Since teachers are not going to chose on the perverse grounds of wishing to make life harder for their students, the choices will, in all probability, remain fairly conservative and gather around those texts with study guides available already. The gain: choosing texts based on a cohort and on other contextual issues, as I suggested in piece 2.

My 20th/21st Century List of British authors (prose) would look something like this:

AUTHOR gender context

Orwell M political commentary/social comment
Huxley M philosophy/social comment
Waugh E M humour/social comment
Greene M humour/ social comment
de Bernieres M not just Corelli!
Barker F WW 1
Attwood F Dystopian visions
Atkinson F exploration of relationships/crime
Blackman F social comment
Ness M Dystopian visions and social comment
Ishiguro M fun with narrators!
Barnes M all encompassing
and a plea for some 1960s “kitchen sink” as well – Billy Liar, Room at the top and so on. The gender balance was not intentional, and just as on Desert Island Disks, my choice will irritate and excite in equal measure. Ask me again tomorrow and there will be different choices. The point is that the texts need not be terrifyingly complex and many will already be taught. All this does is give the freedom of choice to the teacher.

A similar game in the 19th Century might produce:

Author gender origin

Dickens M UK
Hardy M UK
Bronte Fx3 UK
Austen F UK
Eliot F UK
James M USA
Twain M USA
Chopin F USA

Is this really so frightening? I don’t think so.

And so on – as for the lack of imagination in the drama area…. I will revisit this once the AQA and the Eduqas versions exist.

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After Gove: musings on teaching English Literature 2 – OCR in draft.

If you are new to my posts, you might want to start by looking at this: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/after-gove-musings-on-teaching-english-literature-1/ in which I look at the comparative paucity of texts deemed suitable for study at GCSE in the light of preparation for Post 16 courses. I also suggest that I would like to see a”prescribed author” list rather than the seemingly arbitrary allocation of set texts which we face at the moment.

I will start with that point. Some of the responses on Twitter have asked about the issues around assessment and marking of an exam which has no set text. In brief response I would point again to the IBDP. Though it is hard to be certain, something around 60,000 students sit the Diploma each year, across the world. The papers are collected and marked at centres in different countries to the schools being marked and the whole process is completed during June – Exams in the northern Hemisphere begin on May 1st and results day is July 6th each year, with occasional slight alteration. So, whilst there may be a greater number of GCSE students than this, the infrastructure issues of the IB far outweigh those experienced here. It should be possible to get papers to markers and away again in a good time scale.
It would, I concede, demand a change to the role of assessor. Schools would need to be allocated an examiner earlier in the year than at present and would also have ot submit their set text choices to the board in good time to allow examiners to prepare any with which they were not familiar. The list of prescribed authors need not be huge and the choices of teachers would probably not be too diverse – I can’t imagine too many schools offering Bleak House or Dombey and Son over Expectations (yawn), Copperfield or Nickleby. Or even Two Cities – short and possibly tying well with history papers looking at revolution.

Finally, the questions would have to change: this need not be a problem. Generic questions along the lines of “Discuss the use of imagery relating to the senses in your set works” or to what extent would you agree that women are presented as weak and feeble creatures in your set texts?” would surely present a challenge and also encourage the study of literature, rather than the regurgitation of facts about a single novel.

Yes, this is new, but it is also possible. It is also rather exciting.

And then OCR unveiled their draft English Literature Specification.
http://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/168995-gcse-english-literature-specification-j352-draft-.pdf

Claiming that the new specification wishes to allow students to “be inspired” and “be motivated”, they present a clear syllabus with no coursework and two easy to follow units: A prose/drama module based on one post 1914 prose or drama text with use of an unseen prose text to develop comparative comment and a prepared pre 1914 prose text, and a poetry and drama module based on a single Shakespeare play and a poetry anthology.

So far so… straightforward. But this is the area that has raised controversy recently with the instruction that set texts shall be drawn from the British Isles, rather than including work in English, from overseas (oh, alright, OMAM and TKAM – when was the last time you ever saw an Australian novel in this slot?).

What OCR give us to inspire and motivate is simply rather dull:

Anita and Me
NLMG
Animal Farm
Inspector Calls
My mother said I never should
DNA

So, 1 text from that selection. Hands up those centres NOT opting for what is already taught: Anne in Spectacles, NLMG or Anita and Me. It is hard to imagine many straying from the well trodden path – and who can blame them since the changes are coming thick and fast and any chance to save time must be taken. Hardly a brave new world of inspiration though is it? And if OMAM is to be criticised for being too short, what on earth is Animal Farm doing on this list? Actually, what on earth is it doing on the list? Great to see Orwell represented, but why is this chosen over 1984 or Catalonia or Down and Out or Wigan Pier? Surely not, in the new inspirational world, because it is short and comparatively straightforward?

My Mother Said and DNA are interesting, but what chance do they stand…? Besides why is modern drama so underrepresented? No Stoppard, no Hare, no Bennett, no Ayckbourn… fill in the dramatists of your choice.

So, we turn to the 19 century for inspiration:
Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Jeckyll and Hyde, War of the Worlds. What! INSPIRE AND MOTIVATE? If we are going to churn out the same texts all the time, it might suggest that nothing was broken in the first place. Give us a choice! Anything by any Bronte, a range of Dickens, HArdy, George Eliot, something fun and Gothic – Dracula perhaps… (J&H is quite short, but it is not exciting, and WoW loses interest fast unless you happen to live in Leatherhead). Not only that, but there is the option of texts from outside Britain here, yet no Chopin, no James, no Joyce.

Mr Gove talks of the wealth of great literature available on the 19th Century and we get to chose from 5 texts? This is pathetic and I sense that the possible issues with assessment are beginning to cloud the chance to deliver a really exciting range of texts. If that is the case, then the cart is before the horse and we might as well make no alteration to the syllabus at all.

The Shakespeare texts reflect the same issue: great plays all, but nothing new here either – MAAN, R&J, Macbeth and Merchant. A range of prejudice, power struggles and gender warfare to play with, but in reality nothing new which will “inspire”. Again, what a great world to teach in where we could chose a text because it was being produced in a city near by. I admit to teaching in London, but wouldn’t it be amazing if i could tailor my offerings to the NT and Globe alone. Or Stratford. Or the Royal Court. Or the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Or the Citizens’ Theatre…

No, this will not do. Nothing here that is new or exciting and in any way demonstrably superior to what went before. We are told that there is an attempt to inculcate a love of literature and an understanding of the British heritage of much of the literature read by students to day. What we get is the same formula, tired and in need of a radical shake-up. This all looks a bit like Manchester United under Moyes – a much vaunted new approach, but with a team too old and lacking in the passion to fight again. Result? A sad decline of a once proud team and the dismissal of the manager.

Verdict on OCR: Must do better. Paper returned. Please look at your apostrophe use!

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After Gove: musings on teaching English Literature 1

This is the 2013 list of prescribed authors deemed fit for study in the International Baccalaureate Diploma English Literature course. It is 18 pages long, but please take a moment to open it.

author list 2013

This is a typical A level set text list at AS and A2:
Section A: Poetry
Robert Browning
Emily Dickinson
Edward Thomas
W.B. Yeats
Section B: Prose
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
Henry James – The Turn of the Screw
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

and at A2:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
The Tempest
John Ford – ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Ben Jonson – Volpone
John Webster – The White Devil
Richard Brinsley Sheridan – The Rivals
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
John Milton – Paradise Lost Book Nine
Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems
William Blake – Songs of Innocence and Experience

In many cases there is a requirement for a group of “student” choice texts to be studied as coursework, though in reality the relatively poor breadth of reading prior to the Lower VIth means that these are often chosen by teachers and can, in some cases, be centered on discussion of a single passage or poem from a much longer book/collection. In the IB model, the choice is almost limitless, being bound by a few restrictions on texts in translation (the list of authorised texts for that is simply enormous) and by the format of the exam. In all, Standard level students study 10 texts in the two years of the course and Higher level students study 13. Whilst this does not differ drastically from the average A level model, the issue is often with the preparation for study at the post 16 level.

This is where I can begin to see the point in the recent comments by Michael Gove which have caused such a furore this weekend. Leaving aside for now the debate about specific texts – Gove is adamant that he has never sought to proscribe certain staples of the GCSE exams despite claims printed over the weekend, the simple fact is that many students opting to follow the study of English Literature into the VIth form are woefully under-read and underprepared. The average GCSE set text list looks like this:
Arthur Miller: A View from The Bridge
J B Priestley: An Inspector Calls
William Shakespeare: Henry V
William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
Thornton Wilder: Our Town
Section B: Prose
Students must answer one question on one of the six texts listed below:
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
R K Narayan: The English Teacher
John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men
Mildred Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Nineteenth Century Short Stories (edited by Mike Hamlin, Christine Hall and Jan
Browne, Heinemann New Windmill). All stories in the collection are prescribed.
Apart from Nineteenth Century Short Stories, any edition of the above texts may be
used.

Which looks quite stimulating, until you note that a single text from each list is prescribed – in other words, our A level student can arrive in the lower VIth, from this model, having read no Shakespeare and nothing from the 19th century at all in years 10 and 11. There is, in the Edexcel model outlined above, rather a good poetry selection in the anthology of poetry.

So, back to texts: I opt for OMAM. I love the text and think that the exploration of the basis for a civilised society which it presents far outstrips its short length. It is a text which lends itself to teaching in a range f environments and at a range of levels. I would hate to be without it and have blogged about it copiously on here. Which is why I was a little surprised when visiting the department of which I will become the Head in September, to find it taught in year 9. Then I thought about it. It is simple, deceptively so, and deeply engaging, but since it can be taught at this level, why not drop it from yr 11? I have opted for Mockingbird in its place and am now told that this is to be dropped due to the fact that it is not “from” the british Isles. This saddens me hugely and I will find room for it elsewhere.

However, to state that there are no texts pre 1914 (why this arbitrary point in literary history?) which deal with similar ideas or can be assimilated by an average group of teenagers seems to me to be insulting to the potential of the young people we teach. Issues of race might not figure as prominently in these texts, but issues of social commentary abound in many 19th century writers. To read Dickens on London or Hardy on the fate of the rural poor is NOT beyond our young people. It is not easy to deliver this material and to overcome the initial prejudices which often cause us all to opt for the “modern”, but it is worth persevering here because the rewards are great and the potential benefit for any student moving up to the VIth form is immense.

What bothers me is the 1914 cut off. This seems to have been in place for many years. Surely it is time to move the goalposts. If we must be shackled by conflict, how about 1939? It is not impossible to imagine the discussions generated by a work like A Passage To India with regards to attitudes to race or by Down and Out in Paris and London. But surely the opportunity which is not being taken is that which opens up Literature to study. By all means direct my thinking as I plan my dream curriculum – Give me modules such as “The novel – 19th Century” or “The Modern Novel” even at GCSE and give me the choice to deliver work which I am passionate about. A list of authors deemed suitable would be a start: who says that Great Expectations is acceptable while David Copperfield or Nickleby is not? Let us move from prescribed works and allow regional variation to come into play. I know I am a little odd, but as a child, Hardy spoke to me precisely because I lived in rural Wiltshire and found empathy with his Wessex. Likewise, students in certain parts of the country may well find it easier to relate to writers more closely linked to their own world – I have never got on with Lawrence, for example, and I wonder if colleagues who grew up in the villages and towns of Nottinghamshire find him more engaging?

I have no answers. I regret the passing of Mockingbird and OMAM from GCSE text status, if that is indeed what happens, but they are likely to find their way into classrooms regardless of exams. I welcome the possibility that a student entering the Upper VIth and faced with discussing the Canon as part of an AQA coursework piece, might actually have read some of what is felt to be Canonical.

What I want more than anything is for my department and me to be able to sit down and choose our texts to compliment our strengths as teachers; to choose texts suited to our cohort and to be able to choose an author and explore the texts rather than to be given this straitjacket of approval by an exam board.

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