After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 3 AQA and the waiting game.

This blog post is the third in the series which I hope is proving useful whilst allowing me to get my head round the changes that are about to happen to the teaching of English Literature. The first pair can be found here: and here:
They have received an airing on Twitter and provoked discussion. Since AQA will publish their draft on 19 June, as far as I am aware, I have chosen to look at the “companion guide” available, if you hunt for it, here:

It is hard to avoid another burst of disappointment. In the literature section we find this list:
Our texts include (my bold)
An Inspector Calls
Lord of the Flies
Play script of The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the
Anita and Me
Romeo and Juliet
Great Expectations
Pigeon English
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

What is going on? According to Michael Gove the rationale behind the changes being placed on this examination is a concern about a lack of breadth in the reading of our students. Much has been made of the removal of 20th Century texts from outside the UK, but there is a more serious issue here.

If we assume that this list is not complete, I wonder what is missing. Is it CHOICE A: more texts designed to reduce challenge and enable the new courses to be taught with minimum disruption? Or is it CHOICE B: A secret stash of genuinely exciting and challenging texts to allow real choice of set text? Well, there is still time…

However, so concerned are AQA to deliver breadth and challenge that they will water down their closed book Shakespeare and 19th Century novel paper by sending out “guidance about a set act and a set chapter or chapters at the beginning of the Spring term before the exam. The extracts on the exam for both the Shakespeare play and the 19th century questions will be taken from the set act or chapter(s)”.

I suppose this depends on what the purpose of the exam is, but for those who imagine that GCSE can be a sensible staging post en route to A level study, this seems daft. It does nothing to improve the preparation for the jump to VIth form study and reinforces the idea that one does not have to read an entire text if it is tricky. The message is that this is”hard” and that many of the students will not be able to cope unless the texts are reduced in this way. One of the ideas most prejudicial to creating resilience and growth mindset is to embed a notion that some areas of study are “too hard”. What a shame.

At least it is a closed book paper. The second paper does not specify this area, so I assume it is an open book paper. This is nothing new when studying an anthology – open but clean being the common watchword – but why should the modern novel also be open? My current Edexcel Certificate students work well from closed text – our choices range from OMAM and TKAM to MAAN and View from the Bridge, but at least the works are well known and studied as complete works of literature. It may just be my personal preference for a closed book examination, but I am interested as to the rationale behind “closed book but told the act or chapters shifting to open book”.

To be fair, this is work in progress and might not be reflected in the final version, but I am concerned. There is alos reference to the “wide range of texts available”. This might signify hope, but the list presented at the top of the article worries me. Again, seemingly arbitrary choices of work from a limited range of authors. Once again I wonder if this reflects an inbuilt fear of the assessment process – gosh, an examiner might have to read a new text! I started to address this in Post 2 by suggesting that markers are allocated schools around March and that schools submit to the board their text choices at the same time. This allows plenty of time for preparation and removes the need to “read the whole list” in the knowledge that some texts are never chosen, to all intents and purposes. Actually, this makes the marking process easier in many ways and does not mean any loss in anonymity between school and marker. If schools were allowed an author list, as I have suggested in both articles, this is easy to quantify as well. Since teachers are not going to chose on the perverse grounds of wishing to make life harder for their students, the choices will, in all probability, remain fairly conservative and gather around those texts with study guides available already. The gain: choosing texts based on a cohort and on other contextual issues, as I suggested in piece 2.

My 20th/21st Century List of British authors (prose) would look something like this:

AUTHOR gender context

Orwell M political commentary/social comment
Huxley M philosophy/social comment
Waugh E M humour/social comment
Greene M humour/ social comment
de Bernieres M not just Corelli!
Barker F WW 1
Attwood F Dystopian visions
Atkinson F exploration of relationships/crime
Blackman F social comment
Ness M Dystopian visions and social comment
Ishiguro M fun with narrators!
Barnes M all encompassing
and a plea for some 1960s “kitchen sink” as well – Billy Liar, Room at the top and so on. The gender balance was not intentional, and just as on Desert Island Disks, my choice will irritate and excite in equal measure. Ask me again tomorrow and there will be different choices. The point is that the texts need not be terrifyingly complex and many will already be taught. All this does is give the freedom of choice to the teacher.

A similar game in the 19th Century might produce:

Author gender origin

Dickens M UK
Hardy M UK
Bronte Fx3 UK
Austen F UK
Eliot F UK
James M USA
Twain M USA
Chopin F USA

Is this really so frightening? I don’t think so.

And so on – as for the lack of imagination in the drama area…. I will revisit this once the AQA and the Eduqas versions exist.