After Gove: musings on teaching English Literature 2 – OCR in draft.

If you are new to my posts, you might want to start by looking at this: in which I look at the comparative paucity of texts deemed suitable for study at GCSE in the light of preparation for Post 16 courses. I also suggest that I would like to see a”prescribed author” list rather than the seemingly arbitrary allocation of set texts which we face at the moment.

I will start with that point. Some of the responses on Twitter have asked about the issues around assessment and marking of an exam which has no set text. In brief response I would point again to the IBDP. Though it is hard to be certain, something around 60,000 students sit the Diploma each year, across the world. The papers are collected and marked at centres in different countries to the schools being marked and the whole process is completed during June – Exams in the northern Hemisphere begin on May 1st and results day is July 6th each year, with occasional slight alteration. So, whilst there may be a greater number of GCSE students than this, the infrastructure issues of the IB far outweigh those experienced here. It should be possible to get papers to markers and away again in a good time scale.
It would, I concede, demand a change to the role of assessor. Schools would need to be allocated an examiner earlier in the year than at present and would also have ot submit their set text choices to the board in good time to allow examiners to prepare any with which they were not familiar. The list of prescribed authors need not be huge and the choices of teachers would probably not be too diverse – I can’t imagine too many schools offering Bleak House or Dombey and Son over Expectations (yawn), Copperfield or Nickleby. Or even Two Cities – short and possibly tying well with history papers looking at revolution.

Finally, the questions would have to change: this need not be a problem. Generic questions along the lines of “Discuss the use of imagery relating to the senses in your set works” or to what extent would you agree that women are presented as weak and feeble creatures in your set texts?” would surely present a challenge and also encourage the study of literature, rather than the regurgitation of facts about a single novel.

Yes, this is new, but it is also possible. It is also rather exciting.

And then OCR unveiled their draft English Literature Specification.

Claiming that the new specification wishes to allow students to “be inspired” and “be motivated”, they present a clear syllabus with no coursework and two easy to follow units: A prose/drama module based on one post 1914 prose or drama text with use of an unseen prose text to develop comparative comment and a prepared pre 1914 prose text, and a poetry and drama module based on a single Shakespeare play and a poetry anthology.

So far so… straightforward. But this is the area that has raised controversy recently with the instruction that set texts shall be drawn from the British Isles, rather than including work in English, from overseas (oh, alright, OMAM and TKAM – when was the last time you ever saw an Australian novel in this slot?).

What OCR give us to inspire and motivate is simply rather dull:

Anita and Me
Animal Farm
Inspector Calls
My mother said I never should

So, 1 text from that selection. Hands up those centres NOT opting for what is already taught: Anne in Spectacles, NLMG or Anita and Me. It is hard to imagine many straying from the well trodden path – and who can blame them since the changes are coming thick and fast and any chance to save time must be taken. Hardly a brave new world of inspiration though is it? And if OMAM is to be criticised for being too short, what on earth is Animal Farm doing on this list? Actually, what on earth is it doing on the list? Great to see Orwell represented, but why is this chosen over 1984 or Catalonia or Down and Out or Wigan Pier? Surely not, in the new inspirational world, because it is short and comparatively straightforward?

My Mother Said and DNA are interesting, but what chance do they stand…? Besides why is modern drama so underrepresented? No Stoppard, no Hare, no Bennett, no Ayckbourn… fill in the dramatists of your choice.

So, we turn to the 19 century for inspiration:
Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Jeckyll and Hyde, War of the Worlds. What! INSPIRE AND MOTIVATE? If we are going to churn out the same texts all the time, it might suggest that nothing was broken in the first place. Give us a choice! Anything by any Bronte, a range of Dickens, HArdy, George Eliot, something fun and Gothic – Dracula perhaps… (J&H is quite short, but it is not exciting, and WoW loses interest fast unless you happen to live in Leatherhead). Not only that, but there is the option of texts from outside Britain here, yet no Chopin, no James, no Joyce.

Mr Gove talks of the wealth of great literature available on the 19th Century and we get to chose from 5 texts? This is pathetic and I sense that the possible issues with assessment are beginning to cloud the chance to deliver a really exciting range of texts. If that is the case, then the cart is before the horse and we might as well make no alteration to the syllabus at all.

The Shakespeare texts reflect the same issue: great plays all, but nothing new here either – MAAN, R&J, Macbeth and Merchant. A range of prejudice, power struggles and gender warfare to play with, but in reality nothing new which will “inspire”. Again, what a great world to teach in where we could chose a text because it was being produced in a city near by. I admit to teaching in London, but wouldn’t it be amazing if i could tailor my offerings to the NT and Globe alone. Or Stratford. Or the Royal Court. Or the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Or the Citizens’ Theatre…

No, this will not do. Nothing here that is new or exciting and in any way demonstrably superior to what went before. We are told that there is an attempt to inculcate a love of literature and an understanding of the British heritage of much of the literature read by students to day. What we get is the same formula, tired and in need of a radical shake-up. This all looks a bit like Manchester United under Moyes – a much vaunted new approach, but with a team too old and lacking in the passion to fight again. Result? A sad decline of a once proud team and the dismissal of the manager.

Verdict on OCR: Must do better. Paper returned. Please look at your apostrophe use!