Arguments about the changes to the GCSE English Literature syllabus rumble on.
As far as I can find out, some recommendations were made to the exam boards and the Secretary of State for Education regarding the curriculum. These offered ideas and suggestions for future courses and exams, with the proviso that they studied one Shakespeare play, one 19th century novel, some poetry (including the Romantics) and then a final text – which may have been left to teachers to decide. At some point (here’s the debate – everybody gets deniability) this changed to ensure British texts were more widely read. Hence English Literature has been reduced to a nationality rather than a language taking away the breadth of literature from other countries with it.
The entire episode got me thinking about what texts I read at school. I came up with the following list:
- An Inspector Calls (pre-GCSE)
- Of Mice and Men (GCSE
- The Merchant of Venice (GCSE)
- Macbeth (GCSE – but drama not English)
- P’Tang Yang Kipperbang (again drama)
- Lord of the Flies (GCSE)
- Various texts for close critiquing including a lot of poetry, which definitely included Sylvia Plath – our English teacher did his best to put us off her)
- An extended essay on Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird Cage but I also wanted to write about The Color Purple so must have read that too.
- WH Auden (A level)
- Hamlet (A Level)
- Antony and Cleopatra (A Level)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (A level)
- Pride and Prejudice (A level)
Those were set texts or things I studied for exams. And here are the books I remember reading at the same time which I thought must have been set texts but now I remember I just read them because I was interested.
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles
- Great Expectations
- Les Miserables
- Jane Eyre
- Wuthering Heights
- All other Jane Austen novels
- Several EM Forsters
- Turgenev – First Love
- Dostoyevsky’s short stories
- Therese Racquin
I’m not writing these down to show off, you understand (though you are allowed to comment on what a bookwormy dweeb I must have been). I thought I’d read these for school but now I know I read them because I wanted to and, crucially, because I felt no fear of them (before reading, I mean, I defy anyone not to die a little inside while reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles). In one of Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks she talks about reading a lot of Henry James as a young woman and enjoying them until someone asked her if she didn’t find them tremendously hard. She says that she never knew they were regarded as hard until then and after that, she had trouble reading them. She used this as an analogy for making souffle – something people think is hard and so avoid it, when actually it’s very easy. (For the record, I can happily make a souffle but have never read any Henry James.)
The thing is, I’m not the person the exam boards are worrying about. I always read, I probably sacked off maths homework to read more, I always will read. The person they’re worried about is the kid who doesn’t know how brilliant it is to be transported to somewhere else by a book, who is scared of the words because they don’t keep still on the page, who has been told that reading is hard and for geeks. How those kids are to be encouraged by being made to read Dickens and Romantic poetry is beyond me. (I should point out I love Dickens but I tried reading him as a teenager and hated him. Without casting aspersions on any young person’s abilities, there really are some authors that should be read only by adults and Dickens is one of them. It’s just better that way. I do, however, strongly dislike Romantic poets…)
I suspect the problem is not just one of ideology but also one of resources. How many schools can afford a whole new load of books to provide texts for kids on the whim of one teacher who wants to teach something new? How much more work would the exam boards have to put into dealing with a broader choice? And yet how much richer so many children might be if, instead of their teacher struggling to find ways to teach Dickens in six weeks before they have to go onto something else, their teacher finds something new that they feel passionately about and transports the class to a new world through those pages? We all know a good teacher can make such a difference. I know this as I’m one of the rare people who still enjoys reading the books I studied at school – something few people seem to do. I hated the Auden while we studied him but am rather fond of him now.) I think my teachers played a big part in that.
The other budgetary issue is that Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not just read. There are a few good film versions but how much better to have a theatre experience? Do schools still do trips? Can people afford it?
Who knows what state the curriculum will be in by the time E gets to study GCSEs (or whatever we’ve decided on by then) For now, all I can do is encourage her reading, leave copies of great books on shelves if she wants to read and give her a role model that reads (and writes) books. But we’ll stick to the Muppet version of Dickens for now…
*I’m not that old, but hopefully you recognised the quote.