Are criticisms about proposed GCSE texts “complete balls”? Or do they highlight a deeper problem?

Janet Downs's picture
On-line petitions, complaints on Twitter and numerous column inches greeted the publication of draft GCSE syllabuses for English Literature. It was suggested that exam boards had succumbed to criticisms from Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that too many pupils studied novels such as Of Mice and Men and had, therefore, dumped American authors.

The Spectator entered the fray: the vociferous opposition was a knee-jerk reaction by the “liberal intelligentsia” who hadn’t bothered to check their facts, the article said. The criticisms were “complete balls”.

Leave aside the fact that “complete balls” wouldn’t gain many marks as a reasoned response to non-fiction. And leave aside the rights and wrongs of omitting American literature from the list of examined texts. The real question is whether exams with set texts at age 16 restrict rather than widen pupils’ access to literature.

Perhaps it’s time for a history lesson. In the supposed golden age of GCEs, O level English Literature required the study of just three texts: a novel; a play (usually Shakespeare) and poetry (usually one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Pride and Prejudice was often included in the list; but so also were Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

Fast forward to CSE, the poor cousin of O level. Teachers had complete control over what their pupils studied but one thing was clear: they needed to study more than three texts. And their responses were expected to be more thoughtful than regurgitated Coles Notes or a knowledge of "context".

GCSE English Literature embraced the best features of CSE. In the early days the choice of texts was left up to the teacher. Pupils were assessed by moderated coursework. Such a framework allowed pupils to read widely from a selection of prose, plays and poetry.

But constant changes to GCSE English Literature narrowed the range both of texts and acceptable responses. Before I retired, my last GCSE class (Set 3) compared Keats’s Isabella, or The Pot of Basil with two pre-Raphaelite paintings on the same theme. I don’t think such a response would be allowed today. And I don’t think pupils preparing for GCSE English Literature will study as many texts as my CSE pupils thirty years ago.

What has happened to GCSE English Literature is an example of how an exam system drives what pupils learn. The proposed national curriculum may, as the Spectator says, allow pupils to “roam more freely” (except that it doesn't apply to academies or free schools). But in reality, the exam syllabus will restrict what they study during their GCSE Literature course.

So perhaps it’s time to ditch an exam system which focuses on exams at 16 rather than offering a broad, balanced curriculum in all subjects. Freed from the chains of set texts, pupils and their teachers can explore English Literature with enthusiasm rather than dissecting one modern prose text or play, one 19th century novel, one Shakespeare play and a few poems from an exam board’s anthology*.

English Literature is primarily for enjoyment. And, yes, enjoyment is helped by critical reading. But using texts as preparation for exams at 16 which are rapidly becoming redundant as pupils are expected to remain in education or training until 18 can kill enjoyment.

Let pupils drink deeply from the well of literature in English, not just British and American authors but any authors writing in English wherever their place of birth or wherever they live. Let them read literature translated into English from other languages. Let them hear myriad voices.

Free them from the dead hand of GCSE.

*OCR draft syllabus available here.

ADDENDUM Edexcel in their English Subject Update (in email to author) accompanying the publication of their draft syllabuses for GCSE English Language and Literature said:

“FAQ: Why can we no longer teach 'Of Mice and Men' or 'A View from the Bridge' for GCSE English literature?”

“Our qualifications are being developed according to the criteria that DfE published last year following their consultation. This does not prohibit or promote any individual texts but does prescribe the periods and genres that specifications must be developed to meet. There is a greater focus on British literature than in the past while still allowing room within specifications to set texts written outside of Britain, for example in the poetry anthology. The English Language specification also allows students to study a very wide range of texts across three centuries.”

It appears, then, that the omission of American literature was in response to the DfE’s prescription of “periods and genres”. Quite how this prohibits American literature is unclear since the “periods and genres” would cover prose or drama written in English in America. Perhaps the suggestion that the exam boards were leant on is not “complete balls” after all.
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Patrick Hadley's picture
Tue, 03/06/2014 - 22:44

Gove issued new instructions about GCSE English in November 2013. These included:

"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. "

Gove has pointed out that this does not say that they may not study modern non-British fiction or drama but that deliberately misleading, since if students have to study and be examined on modern British works exam boards will not offer the choice of novels or plays from overseas.

Back in the sixties my grammar school English Literature O-level syllabus had no Shakespeare play and no 19th century literature, but was on Robert Bolt's Man for All Seasons, the Gavin Maxwell novel Ring of Bright Water, and anthology of early 20th century poetry. Those were all modern, short and easy to understand. The idea that modern Eng Lit syllabuses have been dumbed down is a myth.

The English Literature O-level was never a rigorous test to see if 16-year-olds had read a wide range of classics. I do not envy teachers of pupils of below average ability having to teach the Govian syllabus.

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