“What’s on your mind?” asks wordpress as I move my cursor into the quick draft box.
Well, wordpress, since you ask, today I’ve been thinking a great deal about literature, education and vision (or lack of). As a teacher of English in adult education (my work alongside directing plays), these issues often occupy my thoughts, but rarely quite the way they have today.
I imagine most people reading this, will know what has provoked my contemplation – if you’ve been on twitter you can hardly have missed it: the announcement by the exam board OCR that they are dropping “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “The Crucible” and “Of Mice and Men”, among others, in response to the Department of Education’s desire to make the GCSE in English literature more “focused on tradition”. According to the BBC news website (where all the quotations in this post come from) a spokesperson for the Department of Education says that, “In the past, English Literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English Literature in December. It 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.”
Now, I genuinely have no problem with the idea of tradition, or studying British authors for at least part of the course – I can’t imagine any country wouldn’t insist upon some of its own being studied, and rightly so – but it saddens me hugely that the current regime seems to be unaware of the value in studying modern texts and texts which originated in other countries – especially such important ones as “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Crucible” (anyone who has been with my blog since the start, will know exactly how I feel about that particular play!). Both have an enormous amount to say to young readers about social injustices and integrity – so important in today’s world.
Additionally, it is all very well for the Department of Education to say they are not banning any authors etc, but by insisting on such a weighty set-text haul (Shakespeare, 2 novels and poetry) there will be very, very little time for teachers to introduce anything else – or, indeed, to work meaningfully and creatively with just the texts that have to be covered. This, to me, feels much narrower than any previous syllabus I have ever taught.
And what about the students in the classroom? Some of the most able will certainly cope with the demands of Victorian novels etc and will, hopefully, enjoy the challenge. But what about the middle and lower ability? Although I myself – with Gove – am a fan of Hardy, Dickens, Eliot etc, it shouldn’t be about me and my taste (or Gove’s). Many teenagers and adult learners will struggle tremendously and I really fear that this may negatively affect how they approach reading of any sort in later life.
By killing off “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Gove and his department may well find they are killing off a great deal more…