The sound and fury surrounding text choices for GCSE English literature just won’t go away.
The exam boards got their digs in first with Paul Dodd of OCR claiming Gove wanted to ban US authors because he “had a particular dislike for Of Mice and Men and was disappointed that more than 90% of candidates were studying it”.
Gove then struck back saying neither nor anyone else had banned anything: ‘”Just because one chap at one exam board claimed I didn’t like Of Mice and Men, the myth took hold that it – and every other pesky American author – had been banned.”
And just in case we’re still tempted to blame Gove, step up Jonathan Bate. Bate seems curiously reluctant to allow Gove to take any credit:
No doubt to the dismay of the Twittersphere, I have to report that the idea that our teenagers should be asked to read a few older works of English literature before the statutory school-leaving age was mine, not Michael Gove’s.
Apparently his idea was to abandon set texts altogether with teachers allowed, encouraged even, to select the very best from the multifarious glory of the canon :
Instead of a year-in-year-out diet of predictable texts, there should simply be a requirement of breadth: at least one Shakespeare play, at least one 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry, including a taste of the Romantics (who invented our modern idea of poetry as the true voice of feeling) and a novel or play from the rich diversity of English literature written in the century between 1914 and 2014. There would be a set range, not a body of set texts.
What a wonderful idea!
The DfE have even put out English literature GCSE: a myth buster which claims, “we have given exam boards the opportunity to do is broaden – not narrow – the range of books young people study for GCSE.” It makes the point that guidance has only been issued on the minimum pupils will need to study and that, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting, and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose.”
So, as long as exam boards included certain minimum requirements (Shakespeare, poetry from 1789, a 19th century novel (from anywhere in the world) and post-1914 drama or fiction from the British Isles.) they were perfectly free to include whatever else they felt desirable. If To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible aren’t on the list, that’s their fault? Great news!
So what have the exams come up with the entirety of the British canon to select from? What have they chosen as the best of what’s been thought and said to hand on to the next generation? Sadly, instead of a brave new world we’ve been offered the same old same old.
Between them, the exam boards appear to have colluded to offer a choice of just eight of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays and only eight 19th century novels – all firmly British, with Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four the only text unique to one board. There’s a slightly greater range of post-1914 prose and drama, but even here we are offered the choice of only 12 different texts.
Now, everyone will have their own particular favourites and as Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive apologises “we can’t please everyone”, but is this really the best we can do? Is it really inconceivable that teachers might get to pick from Titus Andronicus, Henry James or GK Chesterton? If AQA can scrape together 11 different modern texts, why can Welsh Board only manage six? It all feels a bit rigged. Like the examination equivalent of price-fixing: “What’re you going with? Jane Eyre? Yep, us too.”
But the biggest mystery is the staggering ubiquity of some texts of Meera Syal’s Anita And Me which gets a clean sweep, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Russell’s fusty old, bottom set classic, Blood Brothers looks like they might see a boost in sales too. Are these really such seminal modern classics that they must be on the specification of every exam board? Even the DfE appears to think they’re the obvious choices:
The new GCSEs in English Literature will be broader and more challenging for pupils than those available at the moment. They will give pupils the chance to study some this country’s fantastic literary heritage, including works by Jane Austen, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Meera Syal.
Is this really broader?
Maybe not. But what about more challenging? A cynic might suggest that A Christmas Carol, The Sign of Four and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll I and Mr Hyde have been included because of length rather than quality. I couldn’t possibly comment, but Sam Freedman suggested on Twitter that it looked like someone had googled ‘What’s the shortest nineteenth century novel?”
With the vast sweep of English literature to choose from, is this anyone’s idea of inspirational? It’s certainly not Robert McCrum’s, who says in his Guardian article, that in “Striving for educational relevance, AQA has dived into the shallow end, and sustained severe concussion.” It almost makes me wish Gove had banned some books! I can’t help but think he must be gnashing his teeth at the inclusion of the likes of the play script of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The play script! I’ve not read it or seen it so maybe it’s a literary masterpiece, but with Stoppard, Orton or Ayckbourn to choose from why go with an adaptation?
It’s all so sadly predictable. Far from being broad and challenging, this is a curriculum of low expectations and missed opportunities. Surely all we’ve done is replace a system where 90% of pupils studied Of Mice and Men with one where the overwhelming majority will study whatever is perceived as the easier, least challenging text on offer?
Jonathan Bate says, “I fear that the real culprits are the craven examination boards, who cannot free themselves from a ludicrously old-fashioned notion of a canon of set texts.” Exam boards may not be able to please everyone. But who exactly are they trying to please with this specification? It all could have been so much better!
Should we blame the exam boards, or should we rail at Ofqual for failing to hold their feet to the fire?
The one possible piece of good news is that these are just draft specifications. It’s unlikely but if enough of us make a fuss, maybe one of them will go for a set range instead of set texts. What do you think?