There’s been a lot of good sense talked in the media in recent days, in response to the DfE’s changes to the Literature requirements for GCSE…and a lot of nonsense too!
In our usual style, EMC is keen to set out some of the facts and arguments and set the record straight on some of the more curious aspects of media responses.
- Is Michael Gove right in claiming that he’s not banning American texts and that it’s the Awarding Bodies’ fault for narrowly sticking to the set of minimum requirements?
The Subject Content for GCSE Literature, as set out by the DfE, makes some fairly substantial stipulations about what’s required. A complete nineteenth century text, a collection of poetry, including ‘representative Romantic poetry’ (whatever that is supposed to mean), a play by Shakespeare and a piece of drama or fiction written in ‘the British Isles’. There is a requirement for comparision as well as response to unseen texts. This unseen element will vary from Awarding Body to Awarding Body but a first glimpse of the new specifications suggests that the unseen element will be focused largely on poetry and will require the kind of varied, wide reading that allows students to respond effectively to a poem they have never encountered before.
It is conceivable, in another parallel universe, that Awarding Bodies might have added in extra set texts, including ones from America, or from the rich body of literature written in English from other continents, as suggested in the DfE ‘mythbuster’. But how likely was that? With the hugely burdensome and unremitting focus on results coming from government, schools are highly unlikely to choose a specification that requires more of their students than one which asks for the minimum. Awarding Bodies are very aware of that. Who can blame them for sticking to the minimum demands?
Gove is being disingenuous in claiming that he did not want to ‘ban’ Of Mice and Men. He came into office, discovered that almost all the children in the country were studying it and was outraged. He seemed to conveniently forget that they were also required to study a range of other texts, including Shakespeare, poetry and ‘literary heritage’ texts. It was as if all that 16 year olds were doing was one rather slight (in his view) American text. It was made absolutely clear to people attending consultative forums at the DfE that whatever else might be decided, Michael Gove would not countenance the inclusion of Of Mice and Men in any GCSE specifications. So Gove’s disclaimers in the press really can’t be trusted.
- Is Michael Gove right in being concerned about Of Mice and Men being such a ubiquitous GCSE text?
Yes and no, but largely no. The yes part is that it is undoubtedly a bit of a shame if teachers and Awarding Bodies are reluctant to branch out and try out new texts. If the only reasons for sticking rigidly to one familiar text are fear of the unknown, or complacency, that’s unfortunate. There are texts on the current specifications that could work well for GCSE students (Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, Anita and Me among others) but they are very much minority choices. Perhaps – and here’s the no! – part of this reluctance to abandon the Steinbeck is less about teacher anxiety and more about what distinguishes a reasonably good text for GCSE from a really great one. Perhaps it lies in the fact that these other texts, though good enough, don’t really quite manage to do what the Steinbeck does – provide high quality writing worthy of close literary analysis, with a hugely gripping storyline, unforgettable characters and themes that are big and deep enough to engage young people’s thoughts and emotions in a lasting way. Perhaps teachers recognise that Of Mice and Men will live with students for the rest of their lives in the way that some of these other texts may not. Interestingly, as other commentators have noted the texts that spring to mind that come close to Of Mice and Men in this respect are, perhaps surprisingly, all American, books like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography rather than fiction).
- What about drama? Surely there are good enough texts written by Brits?
In considering drama texts, there is the same issue. Somehow nobody modern does it quite like Miller, in terms of the power of the drama, the tightness of construction, the thematic coherence and satisfaction, the complexity of the moral dilemmas, the flawed but sympathetic characters, the eminent suitability for children who, when they start the course are either 14 or 15 years old. All of these things aren’t easy to come by. Run through the list one by one: Alan Bennett; Harold Pinter; Tom Stoppard; Brian Friel; Samuel Beckett and so on. Each of these playwrights has a huge amount to offer and each has been set, and will continue to be set for A Level. But do they pack a punch for 15 year olds? Is the subject matter too abstract or complex or sophisticated or self-reflexive for most 15 year olds to both understand and enjoy? It’s hard to think of British dramatists whose works might hold up for KS4 students in the way that Arthur Miller’s do.
- Isn’t this just showing a defeatist attitude, a reluctance to offer challenge, a search for relevance and accessiblity , a failure to pass on the best of the English heritage to our pupils?
No. It’s about recognising that GCSE is an introduction to literary texts and most importantly, an introduction to ways of studying literature. It’s imperative, if we’re going to encourage future generations to continue enjoying literature and choosing to study it, that their experience in these formative years is one that engenders excitement and enthusiasm. The texts chosen for these students need to be carefully chosen, as those most likely to fire them up with a long and lasting passion for reading. Who knows best which these texts are? A government minister? A civil servant? A media pundit? No. Teachers who have had the experience of working with students, on literature courses, over many, many years. Teachers, who can identify from their work with classes and individuals, the texts that will be most likely to take their particular students on to the next stage of their development and teach them not just about that single text but about literature in general. In the period when some of us at EMC started teaching, where much of the content of the literature curriculum was open, and where assessment contained a significant amount of internal assessment, it was teachers and English departments who were able to make many of these judgements, weighed up the merits of different texts and chose the ones that they themselves loved, that they could enthuse their students about and that they believed to be most suitable for their classes. There’s nothing wrong with setting some very broad parameters – Shakespeare, poetry, something pre-twentieth century, modern fiction or drama – but once you start imposing rigid and often illogical constraints, ignoring the wider thinking within the academic discipline of English, you’re in trouble!
- Despite all this, have the Awarding Bodies missed a trick with their draft specifications?
The wiggle room around Shakespeare and the nineteenth century text is limited. Awarding Bodies rightly need to think about the distinction between GCSE and A Level and make sure that there is proper progression. Contrary to the suggestions of some commentators and bloggers, it does seem quite right to make broad judgements, for instance, about which Shakespeare plays are more suitable for GCSE than A Level, so that pupils don’t find themselves studying the same plays at KS3, KS4 and KS5. There are some good reasons, for instance, for keeping the big tragedies – Lear, Othello, Hamlet – for A Level. Likewise, with the nineteenth century novel, books like Wuthering Heights, Bleak House or Emma are almost certainly best saved for A Level, while Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations or Jane Eyre provide the kinds of reading experiences that make them more suitable for either.
In terms of modern prose fiction from the British Isles, perhaps the Awarding Bodies have, however, missed a trick or two. In looking over their shoulders at each other, and in drawing heavily on the modern selections of current specifications, they have come up with a very narrow set of options. There’s nothing wrong with many of the choices – Roddy Doyle, Meera Syal, Kazuo Ishiguro among them. But they don’t really offer much that is new and they are all very similar, across specs. It might have been good to see a few more varied modern novels, that would work well for GCSE, such as Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, or Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie, or perhaps one of Hilary Mantel’s early novels. A particularly daring board might have considered Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets.
One big and disappointing gap is the short story. There are fabulous collections by major writers, like Helen Simpson, William Trevor, Mary Lavin, Doris Lessing, Rose Tremain, James Joyce and Romesh Gunesekera among others. The short story is a terrific form to use to teach about narrative and it seems a pity that only AQA includes short stories, even then not offering the works of a single, major author, but rather a mixed selection of one-off stories.